Tips for organising effective Residents' Support Groups

When you and other family members or friends decide to start a Residents Support Group, ask for a meeting with the manager 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 group.

You don't need the cooperation of management, 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 may heat up soon enough. If management won't discuss it, send a letter and start the group without his/her cooperation.

We have been made aware of some instances, management appoints a staff member to run and chair meetings - with some even dictating when and where meetings will take place. In a number of cases, relatives of residents have even been prohibited from meeting at the facility and have been "interrogated" about informal meetings and discussions they have held at the facility. In other cases, the facility representative at the meetings have controlled what can and cannot be discussed in resident meetings, with some stating "this is not a suitable venue for raising and discussing these issues". This is a clear breach of Schedule 1 Charter of residents’ rights and responsibilities of the User Rights Principles.

Management are prohibited from interfering with, or preventing the organisation of Residents Support Groups.

Involve facility staff

Good nursing homes will welcome the two-way communication and collaboration between staff and group members. It is also a good way to promote staff appreciation and team interaction.

Not so good nursing homes may feel threatened by Residents Support Groups. They may see them as "gripe" sessions that separate family members from the staff and put up barriers. While Residents Support Groups, by necessity, have to allow for family members to gripe and voice their concerns, this should be done during private meetings.

While at least some part of every meeting should allow for the Resident Support Groups to meet in private, staff should be invited to specific meetings at specific times to discuss specific concerns. For example, if one of the group's concerns involves dietary issues, invite the dietician to talk to the group, answer questions and address these concerns.

It's always better to try to work things out in a collaborative way 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 Resident Support Group in writing to the management or designated staff liaison officer. 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

Resident Support Groups may 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 prioritise. Pick one or two less serious issues first, and see how management responds. Or pick the one issue that has the collective 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 making 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 Resident Support Group selects. If you don't know your rights or the residents' rights, you won't know if the response is appropriate or not.

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 to over-formalise it, 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 Resident Support Group 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 receive 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 Resident Support Group should be organising an outreach program at the facility to make sure all the current family members and the new ones know about the meetings. If management are 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 Resident Support Group won't last.

Try not to control

A lot of Resident Support Groups fail because the person who organised 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 Resident Support Groups can be effective tools for improving care. Change in leadership can be healthy, as long as the leader is in sync with the Resident Support Groups and residents' concerns.