Does Your Nursing Home Have a Family Council?

photo from Care Watchers,

photo from Care Watchers,

A nursing home Family Council can be a great resource for residents, their families and the nursing home itself.

A Family Council is a group of relatives of the residents of a particular nursing home, who come together to keep each other informed about what is happening at the home, facilitate healthy communication between staff and family members, and work together to  advocate on behalf of their loved ones.

In 1986, a congressionally mandated study found widespread neglect and abuse in our nation’s nursing homes. The next year, Congress passed the Federal Nursing Home Reform Act, which governs all nursing facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid certification, which is almost all nursing homes. The Nursing Home Reform Act set minimum standards for the care and services skilled nursing facilities provide their patients. It also provides guidelines and legal protection for the establishment of Family Councils.

The law requires nursing homes to:

  • Provide a suitable meeting place at the facility for council gatherings.
  • Designate a staff member to serve as a contact person with the council.
  • Respect the privacy of the council, sending staff members to meetings only when they are invited to attend.

What does a nursing home Family Council actually do?

1. Advocacy: Relatives may express their complaints and concerns about how loved one are being treated with the Family Council rather than directly with home administrators. This enables relatives to express their concerns without fear that their loved ones will suffer for it.

A good Family Council works to cultivate a healthy relationship with facility administrators and staff. That enables the council to take concerns to the right staff member in the most effective and least threatening way possible.

When relatives unite through a Family Council, their combined voice is much harder to ignore, empowering them to influence how the nursing home is run. Raising concerns through a Family Council is often a better way to handle a problem than a relative getting into an emotional exchange directly with a staff member or a relative filing a complaint with a government agency.

2. Information: The typical Family Council holds meetings on a periodic basis at which family members can share news, ask questions and compare notes. Family Council leaders keep up-to-date on staff changes, policy changes and other important events so that they can keep other residents’ relatives informed. Family Councils are especially helpful to two classes of loved ones: relatives of new residents and relatives who do not live in the vicinity of the nursing home.

3. Support: A Family Council understands that nursing homes face an enormous responsibility: to provide high-quality patient care around the clock on a strict budget. The primary purpose of a Family Council is not to catch a nursing home in a deficiency, but to elevate the quality of the care and living environment where their loved ones live. A good Family Council sees itself as part of the solution.

Often this supplemental support takes the form of projects, such as:

  • Creating orientation materials for new residents and their families.
  • Observing and celebrating holidays.
  • Celebrating residents’ birthdays.
  • Honoring and rewarding staff members, to encourage their best efforts.
  • Providing support to residents who do not have active family members.

Family Council success stories across the country include:

  • A council expressing concern about specific aspects of care, which resulted in staff training in those specific areas.
  • Changes and improvements in staff scheduling, especially the elimination of staff rotation.
  • Changes in food service so residents receive more of their preferences.
  • Staff appreciation events sponsored by family councils.

Start a Family Council

If your nursing home does not have a Family Council, start one. As explained above, federal law requires a nursing home to give you their full cooperation. If it is a good home, they will welcome the presence of a Family Council.

The National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care has created several free materials to help with starting and operating a Family Council. That information is available here: Family Council Center. The center also provides these additional resources for Family Councils:

• A DVD, titled “Strength in Numbers: The Importance of Family Councils in Nursing Homes.”

• An online discussion group for family council members.

• A collection of printed materials created by family councils, including membership forms, surveys, bylaws, flyers and newsletters. Those materials are available in the Family Council Center.