Exploring the potential benefits and constraints of family councils in long-term care

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By Rumana D’Souza

Our understanding of how care should be delivered to seniors depends greatly on applied research.

Through research, we know that family plays an integral role in senior care. We also know how the involvement of individual family members can determine quality of life for residents in care.

What we need now is a greater understanding of how family councils function, and their impact on long-term residential care.

The role of family councils

Composed of family and friends of long-term care home residents, a family council meets regularly to identify and resolve issues affecting all residents, plan activities, and support each other. A family council must be organized, self-led, self-determining, and democratic.

Family councils typically work with a staff liaison appointed by the care home to assist the council.

Family councils aim to facilitate communication, and promote partnerships between staff, residents, as well as families of residents not actively involved in the council.

“Care providers work very closely each and every day with family councils and individual family members of residents in care facilities,” said Daniel Fontaine, CEO of the BC Care Providers Association.

“Family members play a very critical role in helping maintain and improve the quality of life of seniors living in a care setting. A fully functional and effective family council has proven to make a difference in the lives of many of B.C.’s senior population.”

Family councils in British Columbia

B.C.’s Residential Care Regulation supports family councils by stating that long-term care facilities must provide an opportunity for family members to form a council which promotes the individual and collective interests of residents in care, and involves them in decisions that affect their day-to-day.

Gerontological Education, Research and Outreach (GERO) at the UBC School of Nursing released a province-wide report on family councils in the province.

Out of the 222 long-term care sites surveyed across B.C., 151 had family councils. Most of these sites were privately-owned, and located in urban areas.

Facilities with successful family councils reported improved peer support, constructive attitudes, and learning opportunities at their sites.

The report also highlighted challenges to initiating and sustaining a family council, including a lack of interest, poor understanding of a family council’s purpose, and an inconsistency in family attendance.

Findings over the years

Previous research tackling the subject shows the benefits of family councils on long-term care significantly outweigh its drawbacks.

A 2007 study that set out to determine the presence, characteristics and impact of family councils on long-term care in U.S. found they “provide mutual support, empower its members, and advocate change to improve the residents’ quality of life.”

The study, published in the journal Geriatric Nursing, also mentioned family councils contribute to a culture of mutual respect within a long-term care facility.

One of the greatest challenges of maintaining an active council, researchers found, is the fluid nature of membership. Family members are busy with work and their personal lives. And when a resident in long-term care passes away, their family withdraws from the council in most cases.

The study called for increased efforts to identify the role of the facility in supporting family councils, and stated that the involvement of family councils has the potential to improve relationships between family, residents and staff, reduce and address complaints, and improve quality of life for seniors.

Rumana D’Souza works in communications at the BC Care Providers Association.

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