In caregivers' stories, parents are seen but children are heard
Seldom will you find a documentary more depressing, more bleak than "Caring for Your Parents," which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 2. It's 90 minutes of bad news - or 87 minutes of bad news, followed by three minutes of hope, too little and too late.
Not that this is a cheery subject: The film, written and directed by Michael Kirk, follows five families in the vicinity of Providence, each with an aging parent or two who is failing in body, mind, or both. It's about the difficulties of aging and the sad responsibilities of adult children, and it's full of difficult choices and unpleasant outcomes.
It's also carefully calibrated to connect with nearly everyone, since the aging seniors represent a range of living situations and socioeconomic realities. Happy, 91, has a large bank account and a team of caregivers who help her maintain her life at home, at a cost of some $250,000 per year. Charlotte, a single mother from Appalachia who has suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, has a devoted daughter who's determined to bring her to live with her after a nursing-home stay. Bert and Mac, a middle-class couple, want to stay in their modest house as long as possible, despite their failing health. Maria is bedridden and lives in the apartment of her daughter, who works at a department store. Nellie, who suffers from Alzheimer's, lives in a nursing home and gets frequent visits from a son who she thinks is her brother.
But this is not the seniors' story - not even remotely. As its title suggests, "Caring for Your Parents" is told from the perspective of the caregivers, which puts the elderly parents in the sad position of seeming without a voice. In some cases, this is unavoidable, given varying stages of dementia. But in many cases, it's likely that these people have something to say about their situations. We see one of Bert and Mac's daughters talk about the stress of taking care of her parents, but little from them about how they view their changed relationship with their children. Most poignantly, we see how much Charlotte's daughter is pushing her to improve her mobility, but we get no sense of how Charlotte feels, or whether she's even aware of what is happening.
Instead, we get a rightly sympathetic look at adult children who are aging themselves, juggling the physical and psychological burdens of shuttling parents to doctors' appointments or acting as de facto nurses and physical therapists. Some of the stories make for better drama than others; most compelling is Nellie's son, Ricardo, a small-town politician whose marriage falls apart under the burden of him caring for his mother. And while Ricardo's wife talks with amazing candor about the strain she feels, we get little sense of why most of these men and women are working so hard, beyond a general sense of filial duty. We see few of the positive sides of caregiving that the subjects occasionally allude to. And only in those final minutes do we hear that there are support structures available. I never thought I'd watch a TV documentary and wish for more talking heads, but in this case, the most enlightening ideas come from the few experts who are interviewed. One doctor asserts that statistically, the single biggest determining factor for avoiding a nursing home is having a daughter. A nurse at Charlotte's nursing home gently complains about family members who have unrealistic expectations. She doesn't get a chance to discuss how to bridge the divide between hope and reality.
PBS seems to understand what's missing; tonight's program will be followed by a half-hour panel discussion that will include some coping strategies and general guidance. "Caring for Your Parents" would be far easier to watch if some of that help were interspersed with the misery.