Discussing Difficult Topics With Family

Approaching a difficult topic is usually something that fills us with dread.

Throw in an elderly loved one who requires care and all of a sudden the situation becomes incredibly daunting. Family can be hard to deal with at the best of times. When care is involved, the situation can be magnified and if you’re not careful, things can spiral out of control.

There’s so many factors to consider when broaching the topic of healthcare.

Firstly, deciding what’s best for the family unit is not a decision one person can make. A healthy discussion needs to be engaged in an open and trusting forum. Feelings can’t cloud judgment and it’s imperative to stay cool, calm and collected when discussing anything of this nature. Today we will be looking at helpful tips and suggestions that can ease the process, while also highlighting some potential issues that can crop up. Let’s begin.

When a loved one, who is usually elderly, starts to decline in health and shows signs of requiring additional care, this opens an entire can of worms to digest and discuss. Even the closest of families may experience some awkwardness surrounding discussions, due to the sheer weight of things that are at stake. Keeping the peace is the main objective and it should be remembered that you’re all there to get the very best possible outcome for your loved one.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some techniques and issues that will appear.

  • Not everybody wants to be involved

Right out of the gate, it may transpire that not every single family member would like to be involved in the planning and execution of health care discussions for the loved one. If they do not wish to be part of such talks, it’s up to you to respect their decision. This is not the same as agreeing with their choice; rather it is a way of not holding it against them. Resentment towards the family members who do not want to take an active role will only harm the greater energy of everyone involved who does want to help. Understanding and accepting the decision will be far more beneficial in the long run.

  • Find a Setting

A family meeting will ideally occur in a location that everyone present can feel welcome and comfortable. If it’s not possible to have everyone in one space at one time (e.g. people living in other countries) then make use of modern technology. Skype and other calling applications are a great way to conduct video conferences for free and can bring everyone together, no matter the distance. This will go a long way to making sure everyone feels a part of the process and opinions can be respected and heard.

  • Plan

Without a clear plan in place of what to talk about, you may get lost in the noise. That doesn’t mean to say you have to rigidly stick to a script that cannot be altered. Instead, think of some key points and topics that can open up pathways to further discussion and get people talking in the right way.

  • Outside Help

Another consideration is to bring an external presence into the fold. This can be in the form of an expert, such as a social worker, or simply a friend of the family. The reason for bringing in an outside force is that should things begin to escalate and become untenable, then the mediator can sit in and facilitate the meeting properly, ensuring all points are spoken about with clarity.

  • Let Everyone Talk

It’s highly likely that everyone will have their piece and want to chip in with something to say. Allow this to happen, otherwise feelings of resentment can surface if someone is excluded from the conversation. Allow all who talk to do so with integrity. Be attentive and considerate, even if you don’t agree with their views. Rational and calm discussion is the key, rising to hostile reactions will not serve any purpose.

A report at agingcare.com lists some helpful talking points which can get you started, they are as follows;

  1. An up-to-date medical report on your loved one
  2. The elder’s wants and needs with regards to care and support from the family.
  3. Where a loved one will live (i.e. in their home, with another family member, in assisted living).
  4. How much an elder’s care will cost, and how that cost will be covered.
  5. What the primary caregiver needs in terms of assistance and support from the family.
  6. How much time each family member has to visit, or care for, an elderly loved one.
  7. What other resources are available to help the primary caregiver.
  8. Take time to allow each family member to share their emotions about the situation.

As discussions get going, there are several key points to address and consider which expand upon the above. These will be detailed below.

  • Clearly State Roles and Responsibilities

The role of care for an elderly loved one will usually depend on multiple factors. Firstly, their personal relationship will be an opening consideration. This will be followed up by time commitment. How much care can the family member give up. At the end of the day, responsibilities exist still, such as jobs and other family commitments that may put a containment on the amount of time that can be dedicated. Get into specifics. How can someone help out? Will it be folding laundry, or driving them around? Make it actionable and realistic.

  • Minute the Meeting

As you would at work (if your job is in the corporate environment) take notes and minutes of the meetings. Key points of what has been said, followed by an action plan will be put in place here. At the closure of the meeting, have a recap of what was discussed verbally, going off your notes. This way you can make any corrections. The goal here is to get everyone to agree and know where they stand with the discussion that has taken place, so in the future there can be no claims of lack of knowledge of what transpired.

  • Don’t Try and Please Everyone

Striving for perfect harmony is a losing battle. Every single decision and problem won’t be solved in the meeting, that’s reality. Not every question will be able to be answered and not every plan will be fulfilled. Acceptance of this allows for an easier transition from topic to topic, without getting caught up on the nitpicking details. In addition, conflict is bound to arise, sometimes in a healthy way and sometimes not so much. By already accepting this in your head, you can prevail when these tough times arise and proceed with a cool head and calm things down and thus bring the conversation back to where it needs to be.

  • Discuss How Everyone Can be Kept in the Loop

This is vital for moving forward, communication is key. A clear strategy needs to be put into place to allow this to happen, as anything can suddenly happen with the health of your loved one. This can be achieved by sending out documentation on a schedule that has updated health reports and give an overall check on the person’s condition. Another good idea is to create a “phone tree”, which is something that can spread the word should an emergency occur. So the example would be that uncle Bob rings cousin Jack who then rings sister Sue and so on. Finally, get the family meetings into everyone’s diary on a regular basis. Frequency will depend on numerous factors, such as work/life balance and the necessity of discussion. Be flexible with the schedule and accommodate everyone as best you can.

The final topic here is criticism. No doubt there will be some clashing personalities within the family, so it’s vital to be aware of this and how to handle it. Here is some advice that can see you through such difficulties.

  • Don’t Make it Personal

It’s hard sometimes, but avoid taking any insults to heart. If they come from the person needing care, or another family member, remember that this is a stressful situation and things can be said in the heat of the moment that won’t necessarily reflect someone’s true feelings. The criticism of you is probably nothing to do with you, you just happen to be in their line of sight at that particular moment.

  • You Can’t Make Everyone Happy

We’ve touched on this, but the point really does bear repeating. The cliché that says if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one is especially true in this situation. Family disagree at the best of times, so it can be understood that this will be magnified in this situation. By all means take into account everyone’s viewpoint, but don’t be afraid of using your instinct and sticking to your guns about the choices you make.

  • Criticism is Inevitable

Let’s really drive this point home. You will not please everyone. Your role as a caregiver will naturally bring about an invitation for criticism, so accept this and when it does arrive, you’ll be able to rationally and calmly deal with it.

  • Smile

Research suggests that smiling, even if it’s false, can provide mood boosting benefits to you. Not only will it alleviate any fears, it will help you relax.

  • Stand Your Ground

We’ve already established that there will be negatives and critics that will try and dismantle your thought process and while we’ve suggested that remaining calm and letting it wash over you is a good idea, that doesn’t mean you should be a pushover. Abusive behavior isn’t something to be tolerated, so if there’s a flurry of hurtful remarks your way from a particular person, stay cool and simply state that you refuse to accept this and remove yourself from their presence.

  • Get Help

Receiving criticism and especially if it’s harsh words can obviously take its toll on you and become somewhat unbearable. It’s easy for someone to pick holes in your care giving plan as they themselves may not understand the full range of issues that you’re having to deal with. Coupled with the strain it can place on your mind and mental state and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

To combat this, seek an outlet whereby you can share your thoughts an experiences and get honest and knowledgeable feedback from others who have been in your shoes. There are online support groups that exist such as AgingCare.com which can facilitate this and help you.


To surmise, dealing with families in times of health care difficulties can be a struggle. Firstly, getting everybody on the same page can be quite the challenge, so you must be prepared to accommodate everyone, either in a physical space or using the power of technology.

Understand and be ready for a whole host of critics to come at you and don’t let it put you off your course. Stay firm, stay calm and remember that you’re all there for the same goal; to help your loved one. You are not alone in this process and help is there, so don’t be afraid to reach out for it.

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