How to Talk to Your Family About Your Mom’s Health

As the adult child of an aging mother with what seems to be looming health issues, you may feel the need to discuss your mom’s status with the rest of your family. Such a conversation has the potential for conflict and drama. As a result, there are some tips and tactics to bear in mind to make such a discussion easier for you, your other family members, and your mom.

As part of this family discussion, consideration may need to be made regarding the possibility of your mom moving into assisted living. This prospect has the potential to heighten emotions between family members.

Before we dive into some specific strategies regarding a family discussion about your mom’s health and the prospect of a transition to assisted living, some preliminary points need to be made:

  • First (and foremost), you must not make your mother feel like she is being shanghaied. You cannot leave your mother feeling like she is being ambushed. You must ease your mother into the family discussion process respectfully and promptly.
  • Second, you must strive to avoid coming across with your siblings as being the person in charge of your mom’s future. You should make it clear to your siblings that you are merely trying to assist in facilitating a family confab that includes your mother and that is designed to consider her health and living options.
  • Third, you need to respect the sensibilities and feelings of your siblings. For example, you may find that one of your brothers or sisters is not in an emotional position to discuss the prospect of your mom needing to move into an assisted living community. In other words, you cannot make this proposed family meeting mandatory.

Connecting With Your Siblings About Need for Family Meeting

If you think the time has come for your family to consider your mother’s health and the prospect of her transitioning into assisted living, the first step is sharing your thoughts with your siblings. The dynamics of each family are unique. Therefore, there is no concrete template for following all cases when discussing the prospect of a mother or father moving to assisted living with adult children in a family.

In some families, it makes sense for someone in your position to reach out to each sibling to share your thoughts. A key to ensuring that unnecessary drama is not raised in this process is to contact and visit with each sibling as close to the same time as possible.

In other families, a decent plan is to have a preliminary discussion with all siblings simultaneously. Thanks to technology like Zoom or Facetime, this process has become significantly easier than it was five years ago.

During these initial contacts with siblings, you want to clarify that your goal is only to have a family meeting. You are not trying to dive into any significant discussion of your mother’s health or the possible need for assisted living at this time or in the not-too-distant future.

You need to consider that some of your siblings may be opposed to a family meeting at this time. If more family members are opposed than are in favor, you may need to pause the process to consider whether you are on the correct course.

If you are your mother’s current primary caregiver, you may know more about her health than your siblings. Therefore, while a majority may be opposed to a family meeting when you initially make contact, you might appropriately be able to cause them to reconsider if you calmly, deliberately, and accurately convey to them information about the state of your mom’s health.

In advance of an actual family meeting, each sibling should strive to understand the others’ points of view. The end goal for all siblings should be the same: You all want what is best for your mother. In the final analysis, making decisions and care plans is much easier when families are united in their beliefs about what’s best.

Organizing a Family Meeting

As mentioned previously, your mother cannot be ambushed with the prospect of a family meeting to discuss her health and the idea of considering her living in an assisted living community. Once some consensus has been achieved between siblings, the time has arrived to broach the subject of a family meeting with your mother.

You might be thinking: Why haven’t we brought mother into the conversation? As mentioned previously, the possibility does exist that a consensus for a family meeting at this time might not have been reached between siblings. In the end, there might have been some agreement that this meeting would be necessary at a future point, but not now. Consequently, there was no need to broach the subject of this type of family meeting when a decision was made that now wasn’t the time for that process.

If you are your mother’s primary caregiver, you may be the person to approach her with the idea of a family meeting to discuss health issues, her living situation, and so forth. There may be another sibling who can communicate easily with your mother. That individual may be the best choice to broach the subject of a family meeting.

No matter who makes the initial approach, it must be done in a kind, non-threatening way. Emphasis needs to be placed on the fact that this proposed family gathering is informal and intended to start an ongoing dialogue to ensure all is well with your mom and her life. It must be underscored that your mom is the key participant in the dialogue, not the subject.

Each sibling should try to understand the others’ points of view because the end goal is always the same: you want what’s best for your parents. However, making decisions and care plans is much easier when families are united in their beliefs about what’s best.

If family members are scattered in different locations, as a practical matter, this type of family meeting may need to occur over a holiday when folks naturally will be gathered together. (While this meeting could be held virtually, that is not ideal.)

The timing of a family meeting of this nature during a holiday period can be challenging. If you do it at the start of the time the family is together, and the meeting does not go well, the rest of the holiday period can be damped. If the meeting is scheduled for the end of the holiday period, the idea of the session might hang uncomfortably over the heads of some family members.

In the end, by setting specific ground rules and limiting the scope of the discussion at this initial meeting, holding this session at the start of a holiday gathering may make the most sense for most families. By taking this approach, you get the meeting out of the way.

The AARP has an important recommendation for this type of family meeting, a recommendation that geriatric care specialists support:

Frame the conversation so your parent is in control and doesn’t feel interrogated or attacked. The most important question is: What are your long-term goals, and how can we support them? Asking the right questions will give you a better sense of how your parent handles day-to-day tasks and allow them to identify areas where they may need more help.

Questions for Your Mom During a Family Meeting

You and your siblings will want to elicit information and opinions from our mother during the family meeting. This can best be accomplished by ensuring your mom has every opportunity to speak and express her ideas, opinions, and concerns.

Experts in the field of elder care have created a set of examples of non-threatening questions that can be used when having a family meeting to discuss your aging parent’s health and a consideration of assisted living. Examples of these questions (and the intent behind them) are:

  • “Can you walk me through your medications and tell me when you take them?” This will help you understand what medications your parent is taking, if they are taking as prescribed or if the medications are expired.
  • “What do you usually eat for dinner?” This will help you understand their diet and if they can prepare a meal for themselves.
  • “What do you typically do on a Saturday?” This will help you identify any changes in your parent’s social behavior.

Family Meeting as the Start of an Ongoing Conversation

Finally, when organizing a family meeting about your mother’s health and the possibility of assisted living, you need to emphasize that the gathering is the start of an ongoing dialogue. The purpose of this meeting is not to make any decisions regarding your mother’s situation. (Of course, prompt action would need to be taken in an emergency. Indeed, an emergency might preclude an advance family meeting and necessitate quicker decision-making.)