If your family is like most, you don’t all live in the same city – or maybe not even within a day’s drive of one another! You’re here and there, with jobs, families and responsibilities. Regardless of your whereabouts many of the decisions and tasks of caring for an elderly parent must sometimes be handled as a family. A good way to do that is with a family meeting.

The time to plan a family meeting is before your parent(s) has a crisis that requires immediate attention. Be proactive. Clues from your parent – such as increasing forgetfulness, missed medications or difficulties managing money, keeping house or getting to appointments – are all signs that a family meeting may be in order. The following ten tips will help make your family meeting more efficient and productive.

Meet ASAP. If a crisis has happened and you’re the primary caregiver, the sooner you hold the meeting, the sooner you can get help and the less time your family members have to get stuck in the comfortable rut of letting you do all the work.

Set the Agenda. This meeting is serious business. Make up an agenda just as you would if you were holding a business meeting. Carefully consider which decisions need to be made and which tasks need to be completed. Write them all down in advance. If possible, mail, e-mail or fax a copy to all family members before meeting. This will give them ample time to consider how they can best help before they meet with the entire group.

Establish Meeting Rules. One person should lead the meeting. Often, this is the person who is closest (either geographically and/or emotionally) to the parent and who will most likely be the primary caregiver. In some cases, people have a family friend or less involved third party lead the meeting. Make it clear that each person should treat the others with respect. No shouting. No interrupting. No name-calling. You get the idea.

Give Everyone Time to Talk. Everyone should have the opportunity to provide input and have your full attention while they speak. To ensure that even quiet family members get a chance to talk, give each one an allotted time. You might want to call on them in alphabetical order or in order of age.

Ask for Volunteers. Give everyone the opportunity to volunteer for particular tasks (such as locating legal documents, picking up your parent’s prescriptions, or hiring a home health care aide). Before the meeting, decide whom you would choose for each job and make a list. Consider your family members’ talents and interests – which jobs would they do well? Which jobs would they most likely enjoy? If no one volunteers for tasks, start recruiting based on your list.

Be Specific. If you need help with certain caregiving tasks, be specific with your requests. For example, “Mom gets a senior discount at the grocery store on Wednesdays. Would one of you be able to take her to the grocery store each Wednesday morning?” or “I have to be out of town for business March 10 through 14. Could one of you plan to check on her daily and be on call for her on those particular days?”

Focus on the Issue at Hand. Your sister was rude to you last Thanksgiving. Your brother’s rowdy kids practically wrecked your home. Sure, you have grievances with your siblings, but now is not the time to bring them up or let them influence your decisions. The family meeting is to discuss your parent’s – nothing more. Stick to the task.

Look to the Future. As you arrange your parent’s care for the here and now, don’t forget that health and abilities change – sometimes quickly. Come up with a contingency plan – or at least the agreement to hold another family meeting if your parent’s condition changes and you need to make new arrangements or assign new responsibilities.

Establish a Spokesperson. If your parent needs someone to communicate with his or her doctor and other health professionals, it’s much better to assign one person to the task. Pick someone who is reliable, has good communication skills and is willing to keep other family members up to date regarding your parent’s health information. Often this will be the primary caregiver, because this person has the main responsibility for their parent’s care and probably has the closest relationship with the medical team.

Request a break. If family members live far from your parent and have difficulty participating in day-to-day care, request that they devote one week of their vacation time each year to give you a break. If that’s not possible, at least ask for an occasional weekend. Get them to commit to specific dates in writing. Depending on your parent’s health, he or she may be able to travel to them or they may need to come to the parent. The important thing is that you get time off to relax and rejuvenate away from your parent.

ALEXIS ABRAMSON, Ph.D. is cited as America’s leading, impassioned champion for the dignity and independence of those over 50. Doctor Alexis is the author of two highly acclaimed books -- The Caregivers Survival Handbook and Home Safety for Seniors. For more information go to www.doctoralexis.com.

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