Q&A: Jennifer Baumbusch on the impact of family councils on long-term care

Family councils can play a critical role in maintaining and improving quality of life for seniors in a care setting. They meet regularly to facilitate communication and promote partnerships between staff and residents in long-term care facilities.

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

The BC Care Providers Association talked to Jennifer Baumbusch, principal investigator of the study, about the potential and constraints of family councils, and other ways to provide education, peer support and networking opportunities for families of residents living in residential long-term care facilities.

Watch: Dr. Jennifer Baumbusch interviewed at #BCCPA17 in Whistler, BC

What made you look into the impact of family councils on residential long-term care facilities in B.C.?

Family councils are interesting because they’re one of only two formalized ways that family members can be involved in care; the other way is care conferences which is a very individualized approach. Family councils stand as the only collective way for families to get together to advocate and participate in decision-making.

We did an environmental scan across Canada, and Ontario was the only province that actually requires family councils at the time. In British Columbia, family councils are optional. There weren’t any other provinces or territories that really addressed them. So that seemed like a very good place to start. We wanted to look at ways families can participate in facility life in a more collaborative way.

Family councils are often promoted as a best practice, but we can’t really know they’re a best practice because there’s not much research about them.

What does it take to set up a successful family council?

The family councils we found were most successful offer things like education for family members, so they can come together around a particular topic, as opposed to just coming together to talk about what’s happening in the facility. That is one of the most successful ways to sustain and have a productive family council.

What are the main constraints of family councils?

One of the main issues is being able to maintain a sustainable family council. The resident population is changing all the time. As BC Care Providers points out, the average length of stay for residents in long-term care facilities in B.C. is about 18 months. This means family members are also coming and going through the facilities.

From the facilities’ standpoint—that’s the perspective we took because it was people working at facilities that completed our survey—there are huge challenges around sustaining family councils over time. Very often, it’s easy for family councils to be more of a complaint forum, as opposed to being a constructive and productive forum. That’s one of the things we as researchers can look at—creating something around best practices for family councils.

What are the next steps for this project?

We were planning to do a focus group but won’t be going ahead with that because we didn’t have funding for it. Also, based on what we found, we’re looking at other models to bring families together in a collective way.

We’ve done a pilot of interventional family members called the SENSE (Support, Education, networking & Sustained Engagement) study. We’re looking at different ways families could be engaged in care aside from family councils.