Tips for Running an Effective Family Council

Updated Wednesday, December 7th, 2022

Meet With the Administrator

When you and other family members or friends decide to start a Family Council, ask for a meeting with the Administrator to discuss the date(s), a mutually agreed upon time, the place where you can post notices, the designated staff liaison and the process for submitting and responding to concerns of the Family Council. You don’t need the cooperation of the Administrator, but it helps if you want to reach out to other family members and new ones, and if you really want to see changes rather than resistance. In addition, it’s better to start out on a cooperative basis, as things tend to heat up soon enough. If the Administrator won’t discuss it, send a letter and start the Family Council without his/her cooperation. They are prohibited from interfering with the organization of Family Councils.

Involve Facility Staff

Too often facility staff feels threatened by Family Councils. They see them as “gripe” sessions that separate family members from the staff. While family councils, by necessity, have to allow for family members to gripe and voice their concerns, this should be done during the private council meeting. While at least some part of every meeting should allow for the family council to meet in private, staff should be invited to specific meetings at specific times to discuss specific concerns. For example, if one of the council’s concerns involves dietary issues, invite the dietician to talk to the council, answer questions and address these concerns. It’s always better to have the staff on your side, if possible, since they are the ones who provide the direct care.

Put It in Writing!

Someone should take notes during the meeting and be responsible for relaying the specific concerns of the family council in writing to the administrator or the staff liaison. The issues and/or concerns should be agreed upon at the end of the meeting, and the format and tone of conveying the message should be agreed upon. If you don’t put it in writing, don’t expect a timely response. Be concise and direct. Be specific and give examples of the problem, without naming residents’ names.

Pick Your Battles!

Family Councils usually form because of a serious problem(s) at a facility. Thus, the family members and friends who initially get involved are usually pretty upset by the time of the first meeting. However, it would be a good tactic to lay out all of the issues and prioritize. Pick one or two less serious issues first, and see how the administrator responds. Or pick the one issue that has the most direct effect on the residents. Then you’ll know what you’re up against, and you’ll have an idea how hard or easy getting changes will be. It’s also unrealistic to expect all of your concerns to be dealt with at once. At the end of each meeting, one or two concerns should be submitted in writing, with suggestions, if appropriate, as to how the concerns could be addressed.

Do Your Homework!

Find out the laws and regulations regarding the particular issue or issues the family council selects. If you don’t know your rights or the residents’ rights, you won’t know if the response is appropriate or not (Call CANHR for a copy of current state and federal regulations regarding the issue or issues).

Prepare an Agenda

Although some time needs to be set aside for free discussion of concerns, the meetings should have some structure. You don’t need Robert’s Rules, but you should have a plan for each meeting. For example, there should be time for introductions of all attendees, follow–up from the last meeting, guest speakers, if any, and setting the time and dates of the next meetings at a convenient time for as many as possible.

Don’t Be Too Formal!

With the exception of making sure you put all correspondence from the Family Council in writing, the meetings should not be too formal. They should be a place where family members, representatives of residents and the residents can feel free to talk about what they need to talk about; where they can give and get emotional support and important information; and where they feel welcome. Have some refreshments. Nothing increases attendance like the smell of fresh–baked chocolate chip cookies! Some facilities will provide cookies, coffee and soft drinks, but don’t count on it. Bring your own or take turns bringing refreshments.

Involve the Residents

Invite any residents who can or want to attend. Sometimes, family members will bring the residents to the meetings. That way they can combine their visits with the meeting. Most residents probably won’t want to attend, but make them welcome. Their voices are the ones that seldom get heard.

Reach Out!

One of the first orders of business for a Family Council should be organizing an outreach program at the facility to make sure all the current family members and the new ones know about the meetings. If the administration is cooperative, your job will be easy. That is not always the case, however, and you’ll need to be innovative in meeting family members. Have special, short get–togethers on a weekend. Bake some cakes and have a “coffee.” If you can’t get new family members involved, the Family Council won’t last.

Try Not to Control

A lot of family councils fail because the person who organized it, put in all the time and energy and took control, doesn’t want to give up control. This is a difficult dilemma and requires a careful balance of addressing members’ real fear of retaliation and empowering them at the same time. They only way you can do this is by letting them talk, educating them and showing them, through results, that Family Councils can be effective tools for improving care. Change in leadership can be healthy, as long as the leader is in sync with the Family Council’s and residents’ concerns.