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There’s nothing quite like watching comfort television at the end of a long day. A true-crime binge, a lighthearted series for background noise, a guilty-pleasure movie — television and film can soothe our busy minds and warm our aching hearts. But comforting shows and movies also have the power to help us find our places in the world, be in community with one another, and help make meaning of things happening in our own lives. They can provide a safe place to confront what makes us uncomfortable, to explore new ways of thinking and being in the world, and to make us care about things and people that maybe we wouldn’t have otherwise.
That’s exactly what a recent This is Us episode does. On March 8, the NBC show aired an episode (“Taboo”) in which Mandy Moore’s character, Rebecca, facing early onset Alzheimer’s disease, gathered her family around the table for a direct and uncomfortable conversation about her end-of-life wishes. The scene raised some tough and possibly scary questions: “Where do I want to age? If I develop a chronic illness, how do I want to be cared for? Should I talk to my family about the end of my life?” The scene was emotionally charged and deeply sad, but Rebecca’s family members treated her decisions, and one another, with dignity and respect. This was a groundbreaking — radical, even — cultural model for how to live, and how to die.
Netflix’s Human Resources has also been catching fans off guard with an emotional arc about Alzheimer’s, caregiving and grief in an aptly titled episode “It’s Almost Over.” As Yara (voiced by Nidah Barber-Raymond) nears the end of her Alzheimer’s journey, her family and her “Love Bug,” Walter (Brandon Kyle Goodman), struggle to manage her care and support her wishes. Enter “Keith from Grief” (Henry Winkler) who helps the family accept that “the only way out is through.” The episode maintains the show’s characteristic humor and irreverence while weaving a beautiful story around the intricacies of life and death.
These recent television moments depart from typical Hollywood storylines that celebrate and idolize youth and physical fitness. The few portrayals of aging, disability, disease and caregiving we do see in pop culture often reinforce negative and disempowering stereotypes rather than normalize this very natural part of life and give us a roadmap for moving through it. Our society practically teaches us to avoid these topics until we are faced with a crisis and have no choice but to navigate complicated emotions, family dynamics and financial considerations — often all at the same time and with little to no guidance or support.
That’s what happened to me, Lauren, when my mom was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at 55 years old. I was in my 20s, dating my now-husband and starting a career in Hollywood. This was not the stage in life I thought I’d be discussing illness and death with my parents. And we didn’t. We didn’t talk about it because my mom, feeling the cultural shame and stigma of her diagnosis, didn’t want anyone to know. This made my heartbreak and frustration harder to manage. When I sought out a support group, I was the youngest participant by decades and the only one who wasn’t caring for a spouse or elderly parent. There was no place for me because we hadn’t created space for everyone, at any stage, to have conversations that are as important as they are difficult. In some ways, we still haven’t.
Look no further than what happened when #AlzheimersinAmerica, a hashtag promoted to raise awareness around Alzheimer’s disease, started trending with photos of President Biden. Twitter users co-opted the hashtag and weaponized it to attack older people’s character and behavior, rather than spotlight the impact of a devastating disease on 6 million Americans and their families. We stigmatize what we fear and what we don’t understand. It’s no wonder then that caregivers — especially sandwich generation caregivers — feel isolated, unseen and utterly unprepared to talk with family about care during a crisis.
As former family caregivers, both of us felt heartbreak and longing, but also validation and hope when we watched This Is Us and Human Resources. Seeing content that explicitly depicts end-of-life planning with nuance, depth and relatability gives us hope that we have reached a cultural tipping point. Ten years ago, both of us, Ai-Jen and Lauren, started organizations (Caring Across Generations and Hilarity for Charity, respectively) with hopes of inspiring this shift. We’ve spoken to countless families across the country and have been troubled to learn that even when dealing with extremely challenging care situations in their homes, most people don’t value their role as caregivers, and can’t imagine anything different for themselves and their families. If we are to create real, lasting change for families, we need these experiences centered in the stories we tell.
Television and film have the power to help caregivers and care recipients see themselves and their experiences represented — from juggling family members’ conflicting concerns, to scrambling to pay for unanticipated costs, to savoring moments of joy and deep love. Pop culture can normalize care planning so that fewer of us feel isolated. It can provide models for dignified aging and care across generations and change how we care for one another. Recognizing care as the backbone of our communities is the first step toward public policy that prioritizes childcare, paid family leave and long-term support for all of us.
We gratefully acknowledge the progress that these shows represent and call on more content creators to center storylines that demystify disability and death, and allow us to talk openly about and prepare for this inevitable phase in our lives before a crisis hits. Our organizations are here to support you as you harness your cultural power to disrupt norms around aging, illness and the value of care by way of the stories you tell. Call us. Let us help you tell the stories — in all their complexity and richness — that will help us transform how we age, how we care for one another and even (or, especially) how we die.
Ai-jen Poo is director of Caring Across Generations and National Domestic Workers Alliance. To engage in policy and advocacy efforts with Caring Across Generations, visit caringacross.org.
Lauren Miller Rogen is a filmmaker and co-founder of HFC (formerly Hilarity for Charity); an organization that cares and advocates for families impacted by Alzheimer’s disease. To support caregivers in crisis or share your caregiving story with HFC, visit wearehfc.org.
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