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Harrington: Conference Call

Recently I was on a conference call with nine other people. We had an agenda, a moderator, a set of questions to answer, and important decisions to make. And we shared the value of giving each person an opportunity to speak, without interruption.

Many Vermonters work from home these days – full-time or a bit. So joining a conference call from a couch near the woodstove or porch overlooking the garden isn't so unusual. We're a rural state with a high number of self-employed people – both factors that make us familiar with these calls.

But this conference call was unusual – as were three others before it – in that I was on the phone with my three sisters, my four brothers, and my mom and dad. Our important topic of business: future living arrangements for parents in their late 80s.

We called in from three locations in Vermont, and from New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, and Florida.

We didn't start until everyone was present. “Is Steve here?” someone asked. “I'm here,” he said, either from his airplane hangar or house in Claremont.

“Hey, Eric, did you get that storm on the coast?” someone asked. He had. And David reported that his son had a new job in Delaware.

We were all there – including our parents in Florida – so the meeting began.

Marie (a school administrator) was the logical moderator. She went over the common goals, as we children saw them, from previous calls. These included:  a comfortable home for our parents near at least a few of us, with good health care and other support services.

Options included staying in their current home, renting or purchasing a small house or apartment near one of us, or looking into assisted living in several locations.

I was the note-taker. The former nurses, Nora and Anita, provided advice on medical issues. We each spoke our piece – first, Ron, as the youngest. We talked about what we thought were the best options in the months ahead and what we could personally do, including travel to help with doctors' appointments or care in our homes.

People also voiced concern about things they thought would not work out. Not everyone had the same concept of best options, but everyone was heard.

My mother had prepared an outline and clearly spoke about the pros and cons of each situation. Good health care and support were important to her, but so was proximity to family. Our father has strong ties to his workshops and gardens at home, but said he understands that change may be necessary.

We spoke for almost 90 minutes. There was time to respond to what others had said – and to plan some next steps.

Decisions will continue to evolve as our parents (and we) keep aging. These are not easy choices – as families blessed with elder members will recognize.

We were a bit awkward on that first conference call – but we've now found a good way, going forward, to discuss important family issues, over a distance.

The late Elaine Keen Harrington of Middlesex was a lecturer in the English Department at the University of Vermont. A former editor for the Rutland Herald and Times Argus, she also owned a fiber arts business.
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