Family Meetings Crucial To Recognizing Elderly Parents’ Wishes
Written by Mary Jo Speier - Elder Law & Estate Planning Attorney.
Many of my baby boomer clients call me in a state of panic. The family has a crisis. Dad was diagnosed with dementia and can’t live alone anymore, mom has congestive heart failure and is too weak to care for herself, someone near and dear to them needs long-term care. They tell me they don’t know how to help their parents and they’re scared.
I sympathize with them and suggest they hold a “family meeting” to address issues related to their parents’ well-being, eldercare needs and estate planning. My role is to help arrange the meetings and provide legal counsel.
During family meetings, parents can express their wishes about where they want to live and appoint someone to handle their financial and medical affairs if they become incapacitated. Lawyers explain eligibility requirements for Nursing Home Medicaid benefits and the importance of executing a Will, a Power of Attorney and an Advance Medical Directive. Participants also learn about community resources available to help caregivers and seniors.
Ideally, family meetings are held before crisis hits. Putting together a plan for a loved one sooner than later minimizes last minute scrambling for solutions and helps reduce tension arising when a parent needs more care. But often times, adult children are not aware of their parent’s declining condition and are caught off guard when their parent’s health takes a turn for the worse that exceeds their ability to care for them. I tell clients that despite the urgency of the situation we can work together to brainstorm solutions.
All family members should be present at the meeting so they can discuss their concerns, ask questions, gather information and agree on a plan of action. Those who can’t make it to the meeting can still participate via conference call or Skype. Caregivers or housekeepers are sometimes asked to attend family meetings to offer insight into the parent’s life and health condition.
I encourage clients to establish the meeting’s goals and objectives up front and pass out a copy of an agenda to all family members before the encounter. Family dynamics such as sibling rivalry can derail discussions as old wounds reemerge and emotions get out of hand. At a time of crisis, everyone is on edge. Agenda items that lead to discussions of issues that address everyone’s concerns is a proven way to diffuse stress.
The best way to keep the meeting on track is to appoint neutral facilitators such as trained mediators or religious leaders. But even the most efficiently-run sessions may not be long enough to address all agenda items. I explain to my clients that some estate planning and elder care issues are so complex that subsequent meetings may be needed.
Witnessing the health of a previously independent parent decline can be traumatizing. A family meeting provides a safe environment in which parents and adult children can share their feelings and concerns. In such a setting, family members can develop an action plan designed to carry out the senior’s wishes while ensuring his or her dignity, safety and as much independence as possible.
It is my job to help adult children and their parents achieve the best possible outcome.