Family Matters: Ways to Improve Staff/Family Communications

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Stephanie Gfeller

Judy Miller

Stephanie Gfeller, Long-term Care Program Coordinator and

Judy Miller, Project Consultant, Kansas State University

The importance of relationships between staff and family members is often overlooked and the relationship is not typically described positively. In one study that looked at communication between staff and family, staff reported the interactions to be time-consuming, difficult and problematic (Utely-Smith, 2009). These descriptors are likely not to surprise you. So why invest more time into them?

Frustrating as our family may sometimes be, most of us desire solid family connections. That desire doesn’t end because of a move into nursing care. To be truly person-centered organizations, staff must understand whom each elder views as family and ensure they are helping elders maintain those connections by building their own connections with those individuals. When an elder moves in, staff communication and collaboration with family play an important role in the satisfaction of both the elder and their family.

But how do you go about creating partnerships with family members? The answer to this question lies in reflecting on current practices, changing mindsets and intentionally developing relationships. When we understand the potential of family/staff relationships for elders and work to foster them, everyone, including the elder, benefits from the increased connection and information exchange that occurs (Utely-Smith, 2009).

Think for a moment about the view of family members within your organization and the accompanying interactions. Are staff intentional about engaging in meaningful conversations with families or are they looking (or walking) the other way when they see family in the hallway? Do you assume all is well unless there are complaints or do you actively seek input?

You’ve likely thought a great deal about relationships between staff and elders and probably even have strategies in place to ensure these relationships happen. Why not do the same with family/staff relationships? When implementing strategies to increase information exchange and build trust they should be utilized early and consistently (Utley-Smith, 2009). Let’s briefly explore some great connection opportunities.

  1. Communication and Connection PRIOR to Move-In— From the first interaction with the elder and family, partnership building begins. They are a resource to gather preference and routine information that can be used by caregivers from day one. Imagine the comfort that would come from seeing their input used immediately in the care. The early stage of the relationship should also include a discussion of expectations around the role the family members wishes to play.
  2. Personalized Move-In— Move in day can be stressful, emotional and feel very scary to the elder and their family. Some family members see the move as their failure or a broken promise. If it’s being viewed this way, it is important for move-in day to include reassurance and empathy not just paperwork. The experience should be personalized with the information gathered prior. The care team should be aware of the elder’s preferences and ready to act on them. Seeing the staff prepared for their arrival can be helpful in reducing anxiety. Staff should also be prepared to welcome the family with information, emotional support and hospitality.
  3. On-going— You are off to a good start from the work done prior to and during move-in but the communication over the next days, weeks and months is equally valuable. Ideas to consider include:
  • How do you want staff to greet and interact with family members when they visit? Provide training so everyone knows the expectation.
  • Is communication balanced? Do you only reach out to family members when you are required to (falls and condition changes)? To avoid dread when you call, make it a habit to contact families with good news updates too.
  • Are you using social media to keep family informed? Social media and e-mail are quick, easy ways to share happenings. Make sure your organization has a social media policy that aligns with the CMS guidance on social media posting and train all staff on that policy.
  • Do families visit then leave or are they part of the culture of your organization? Integrate families into the community life by inviting them on outings, to special events, and to be part of your volunteer program. When family members are aware of needs (beyond socks) they can be valuable assets.
  • Does your care plan system truly involve the family or are those who attend merely there? Are the meeting times, locations and methods friendly for family members? Develop a system where the elder along with their family play an active role in care plan development. Opportunities for the elder, their family and the direct care team to come together encourage communication, collaboration and build trust. This is invaluable when problems arise!

Just like it takes time and effort to build relationships with elders, it takes time and effort with families. When family members are care partners they feel good about their relationship with you, have ownership in the care provided and you might just have fewer fires to put out. Happy family members are the best volunteers, donors and marketing team!
Utley-Smith, Q., Colon-Emeric, C.S., Lekan, Rutledge, D., Ammarell, N., Bailey, D., Corazzini, K. … Anderson, R.A. (2009). The nature of staff-family Interactions in nursing homes: Staff perceptions. Journal of aging studies 23(3), 168-177.