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Organizing a Family Council

Each family council is different, according to the needs and interests of its members. As a result, there are no hard and fast rules about organizing and running a council. However, experience has shown that the effectiveness and ongoing success of a family council has much to do with the initial organizing.

Where to Begin

Before starting to organize a council, contact the social worker and the administrator of the home to enlighten them about family councils and to enlist their support. A presentation of the idea at a staff meeting of the nursing home would also be helpful, so that all nursing home personnel understand and do not feel threatened by a family council being started.

Plan an initial meeting with families and friends:

  • Plan a meeting to which all families and friends of the residents of the home will be invited to determine if the families are interested in having a council, and, if so, to begin the process of organizing. In some cases, the nursing home is willing to send out invitations to the families. Following up on the invitations with a personal telephone call is very effective. Notices should also be posted in the home, because all interested family members and friends may not be included on the home’s mailing list. or
  • Get together a small group of families and friends who are already active and involved and work with them to plan and run the introductory meeting. This can be more time-consuming initially, but in many cases, it will be more effective because it establishes, from the start, that the council will be run by the families themselves, rather than the staff.

The Introductory Meeting

The introductory meeting should include:

  1. Presentation: An explanation of family councils, their purpose, importance and organization. Slide or video presentations may be used for this purpose. CANHR can provide some fact sheets for the meeting.
  2. Organizing: A decision on whether or not they want a council. If the concept is explained with enthusiasm it is unlikely that they will respond negatively. However, it is important that the principle of self–determination is established by making it their decision.
  3. Selection of officers: Since the families often do not know each other yet, most councils begin with temporary, volunteer officers, who serve until regular elections can be held. Most councils have a chair (or president), a vice–chair, a secretary, who will take notes during the meetings, and a treasurer. Some councils have co–chairpersons to share the duties.

Having co–chairs or alternating leadership is often a good idea. This builds leadership skills and prevents the chair from being “co–opted” by the facility and keeps the family council from becoming a “personal” agenda, rather than a group agenda. No chairperson should serve more than one year, unless there are no alternatives and he/she should not speak on behalf of the group without its permission.

Staff Involvement

Members will often suggest that the staff run the council instead of, or until, electing officers. This has proven to be unsuccessful in most cases. A staff–run council is not a family council. In many instances where a family council has been staff–run, interest and attendance has steadily declined or the council has lapsed into a purely social group. Often a staff–run council meets infrequently or is not very active because the staff doesn’t have adequate time to devote to it. In many instances, well–meaning staff persons have agreed to run a council “temporarily” only to find it much harder to get the family members to assume responsibility later. By selecting temporary officers at the very first meeting, many such problems can be avoided.

Although the facility is required to designate a staff liaison to provide assistance and to respond to written requests from the group, this staff person is not required to attend the meeting. In fact, staff are permitted to attend only with the consent of the council. It is important to have at least some time at each meeting where the family council members can meet in private.


A decision should be made on what the basic structure of the family council should be. Two structures are most common:

  1. Group structure: if the group of interested families and friends is small, a council usually invites all families to each meeting. Planning, decision–making, and other basic functions are carried out in these meetings.
  2. Committee structure: if the group is large, a steering or executive committee is often selected to plan and make decisions that would be difficult or time–consuming to deal with in the full council. This committee may meet monthly, prior to the regular meeting and make reports to the full council. One of its major tasks is to plan regular meetings and projects to which all families are invited. The steering committee can include all officers, sub–committee chairpersons, representatives of each floor or wing, or a number of members elected by the whole membership. With this type of structure, it is very important that the steering committee make efforts to get input from other members and to keep other members active and involved.