Caring For Your Parents: Compelling PBS Documentary Glued Me To My Chair

I received an email from my cousin about the PBS documentary, Caring for Your Parents, a few days after it aired on April 2, 2008. He wanted to know if I was going to talk about it here. He thought it was a dynamite show.

I missed it the first time it aired. Fortunately, the entire show is available at the PBS website. So I was able to watch it today.

Wow!

The Caring for Your Parents website has divided the show into small sections. I was only going to sample a few sections to get a sense of what the show was about. That turned out to be nearly impossible. I had to watch the entire show.

The show’s producer, writer and director, Michael Kirk tread a fine line between respecting the private aspects of each of these five families from Rhode Island while having them describe the unvarnished truth of their lives as caregivers for their aging parents. We follow them over the course of a year. From well-to-do to working class, each family is coping with their parents evolving lives. Several of these families were dealing with parents with dementia.

It’s funny how we sometimes think our own situation is different or unique. I was struck by how eerily similar many of the conversations between adult child and parent and health care provider were to my conversations with my father.

Early in the show, one of the parents was being reminded by his doctor that he needed to give up driving a car because his memory has started to fail. The conversation was so similar to ones I had with my Dad that I was stunned!

The families and situations were varied but the major themes were the same as those I had encountered. Here are a few highlights:

1. Many of our parents believe in being self-sufficient. They will not mention problems they are having because they don’t want to be a burden. So, it is important to have conversations about finances and medical care and to continue having conversations as your parents’ health changes. Their choices and decisions and wishes need to be written down. It’s not one conversation–it’s many over time.

2. Your interactions with your adult siblings regarding your parents will mirror the interactions you had when you were younger. If your fought as kids, you will likely fight about your parents’ wellbeing. You can break out of the old pattern. You need to toss your expectations away about what your siblings ought to be doing. Inter-family anger is likely when one sibling does all the caregiving. It needs to be dealt with in a positive way.

3. The family members providing care often deal with highly technical medical information in order to provide a parent with informed care. It practically takes a Masters degree to deliver medication, understand what the issues are, speak for the patient when she/he can speak for themselves and make the excruciating decision on when to stop a treatment that isn’t working.

4. All of this work takes a huge toll on the caregiver whose health may be in jeopardy from the stress and self-denial. Of the five families, the caregivers who took time to take care of themselves fared significantly better than those that didn’t.

Director, Michael Kirk, tries to end on an upbeat note by talking about “Transformative Moments”. My own experience bears out that there are often funny, happy and special moments shared with your parents as you care for them. The more you focus on those moments of joy the easier it is to get through the difficult moments.

Caring for Your Parents forces us to confront the idyllic myth that we and our parents may have of their independently living out their days in happy retirement until their “time is up.” Our elders are living longer, often in poorer health. They need more and more of our help as time goes on.

This documentary is a real eye opener. Please do watch it.

It is available for viewing on the PBS website and the DVD is available for purchase.

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