By Marilee Emerson

I heard this quote not long ago: ”People spend more time planning their family vacations than they do planning for their lives.”

I’ve seen some pretty elaborate vacation plans, but I hear a lot less about life plans.

A form of life planning is what I refer to when I talk about person-centered planning.

I find it simultaneously easy and difficult to wrap my head around person-centered planning.

On the one hand, it makes total sense … of course people need to be at the center of their life plans!

On the other hand, all the health, education, and social service systems can make the process seem complicated and overwhelming. How can you plan for an individual within large systems?

Confusion and uncertainty make it less likely that individuals and their caregivers will embark on this type of planning.

So, let’s break it down.

Person-centered planning is a set of approaches to help increase the independence and self-determination of individuals who have historically been disempowered.

This process was initially championed in the disability community for this reason; however, the process was expanded to address the needs of any individual who desires support with a life plan.

I often contrast the term person-centered with system or service-centered.

Person-centered means we listen, respond to and create a life plan based on an individual’s hopes, dreams, and goals.

In contrast, is creating a life plan based on what’s available through a system or service delivery model.

We know one size does not fit all, so why do many settle for this approach?

Sometimes an individual may appear to settle because they may not have a traditional means of communication to say, “I don’t want that.”

Other times, people appear to settle because they don’t have a support system in place to help discover alternatives.

Another quote I hear a lot is, ”If you’re not planning your life, someone else will.”

Person-centered planning is really about choice, opportunity, relationships, and possibility. 

Two pioneers and thought leaders of person-centered planning, John & Connie Lyle O’Brien, developed the Framework for Accomplishment, and identified Five Key Valued Experiences that individuals with disabilities often need assistance with:

  1.  Sharing ordinary places
  2.  Making choices
  3.  Develop abilities
  4.  Grow in relationships
  5.  Be treated with respect and have a valued social role

These five valued experiences seem pretty basic, but for many people, achieving them throughout their lives is an uphill climb.

Person-Centered Planning helps create the opportunity for these valued life experiences. It creates the space on center stage for someone who may not usually be listened to; it helps start a conversation.

While there are many processes that support person-centered planning, they all share a philosophical background that says an individual is at the center of decision making, and family members (and trusted others) are partners in this process.

Marilee Emerson is passionate about helping families through challenging transitions. She helps parents of children with disabilities and learning differences know what they need to do next, so they can create better lives for their children and families.