When It’s Time to Huddle

A version of this article appeared May 11, 2013, on page B8 in the U.S. edition
of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: When It’s Time to Huddle:

People are calling “family meetings” nowadays not only to deal with their parents’ health issues but increasingly to sort out their finances as well.

In the past, many families huddled only after a medical crisis. But even families who have their caregiving strategy mapped out are gathering to work through complicated financial issues and legal planning for frail, elderly relatives.

Susan Akers, an education specialist at the New Jersey Department of Education who lives in Denville, N.J., called such a meeting for her family following an alert from a home-health aide who cares for her 89-year-old mother.

But the call was about Ms. Akers’s 88-year-old father. The aide told Ms. Akers that she heard Mr. Akers on the phone trying to do a banking transaction, and he couldn’t remember the password or the answers to the security questions, Ms. Akers says. The aide then suggested that it was time for her to call a family meeting.

“I thought, ‘You’re so right,’ ” Ms. Akers recalls.

As the oldest child and only daughter, Ms. Akers says she had spent more time than her three brothers with her parents and wanted a better way to keep the brothers in the loop with any concerns about their parents’ needs.

In March, she coordinated a meeting attended by her father, her brothers and professionals who work with her parents.

Now, they are emailing in a coordinated way and she is putting together notebooks of paperwork they might need down the road.

The best part: “My father thought it went well,” Ms. Akers says. “It seemed like a real relief for him.”

Where to Start

So where do you start when calling a family meeting?

Be inclusive. Ms. Akers and her three brothers live in three states, but she worked hard to find a date when all of them could meet, along with her father and his financial planner and estate-planning lawyer.

On March 16, various members of the family met from breakfast through dinner in a sitting room, with catered meals, in the same building where their parents live.

Include your parents if they are healthy enough. “Too often the siblings come in thinking they are going to make decisions for Mom and Dad,” says Lucille Deutsch, a geriatric-care manager in Cedar Knolls, N.J. “No one has the right to tell anyone else what to do. Our parents have decades of life experience that deserve to be valued and respected, and we shouldn’t treat them like children.”

Once you get everyone in the room, give everyone a chance to be heard. “Very often there are one or two family members who want to be the leaders in the process,” Ms. Deutsch says. “But the person who is most appropriate to take the lead is the one who’s the most trusted by the parents.”

Don’t delay. In the best-case scenario, families should hold meetings before any serious health problems develop.

John McManus, an estate-planning lawyer in New Providence, N.J., says there is a “gaping hole” in family planning around preparing for parents’ aging. He considers instituting family meetings among his clients’ families, and in his own, one of his top professional and personal priorities, he says.

No One Correct Answer

“Meetings are critical for getting ideas out on the table,” Mr. McManus says. “There is no one correct answer on how to deal with Mom or Dad’s health issue,” so it’s helpful to have time to think through the choices as a family.

Hire a professional referee. When siblings don’t agree with each other or their parents about what to do, bringing in a geriatric-care manager, accountant, lawyer or other pro with expertise in the area of the dispute can help families work through the tension. (There is a national directory of geriatric-care managers at caremanager.org and one of elder-law attorneys at naela.org.)

If disputes grow contentious, consider hiring a mediator to help work through differences. Keep in mind, though, that elder-care mediation is a relatively new field with no set credentials, so it is wise to get referrals and to interview mediators before settling on one. Some places to start: acrelder.org, nafcm.org, tcsg.org/med.htm and senior-mediation.org.

Set an agenda in advance. Put one person in charge of setting an agenda, and invite other family members to suggest items to include.

The Family Caregiver Alliance, a San Francisco nonprofit group, suggests addressing the following issues: the latest doctor’s report, fears about illness and caregiving, daily caregiving needs, financial concerns, the person who will make decisions about finances or medical treatment, what support role each family member should play and what support the primary caregiver might need.

The group also suggests writing up a summary of the meeting and scheduling the next one right away.

Tap long-distance relatives. Ms. Deutsch suggests asking a faraway sibling to help handle a parent’s finances. When she and her husband were the primary caregivers for her 96-year-old mother-in-law, “her medical needs and social needs were overwhelming to the point that we could not also manage her finances,” she says.

Her sister-in-law in California handled the money instead.

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