Whether caring for a parent with Alzheimer's disease, a spouse battling cancer, a child with autism, a sibling with bipolar disorder or a returning veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, America's more than 65 million caregivers are playing a role most of us will take on at some point in our lives, but one for which few of us are prepared. Fortunately, we have their examples to guide us — and the examples of some admirable television characters.
Reflecting dramas taking place in homes across the country, TV's top writers and producers incorporated caregiving crises into their scripts this season in surprising and compelling ways. Since Emmy season is upon us, let's take a moment to recognize the shows that recognize the value of caregivers:
Best Long-Distance Caregiver: Brenda Lee Johnson, The Closer
For seven seasons, Captain Brenda Lee Johnson of the LAPD (Kyra Sedgwick) fought crime on TNT's The Closer while frequently checking in with her Atlanta-based parents, Clay (Barry Corbin), who suffered from thyroid cancer, and Willie Ray (Frances Sternhagen), who had taken on the burdens of spousal caregiving. As the series reached its conclusion, the couple had moved into their daughter's Los Angeles home so that Clay could take part in a clinical trial run by a doctor whom Brenda had previously suspected of Medicare fraud. In the show's sad and surprising penultimate episode, Willie Ray, who had never complained about the stress of caring for her husband, died in her sleep in Brenda's guest bedroom.
Almost 8 million Americans, like Brenda, are long-distance caregivers for a loved one, typically an older parent. Many primary caregivers, like Willie Ray, neglect their own needs and sometimes end up in worse health than the person they care for.
Best Caregiver for Multiple Loved Ones: Carrie Wells, Unforgettable
On the CBS drama Unforgettable, police investigator Carrie Wells (Poppy Montgomery) solves crime with the help of her hyperthymesia, a rare autobiographical memory ability first identified by researchers in 2006. There are only 20 reported cases worldwide, one of them being veteran actress Marilu Henner. So it was appropriate that Henner was cast as Carrie’s Aunt Evie, a character with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Carrie’s mother also suffers from Alzheimer's and Evie is childless, so Carrie pledges to be caregiver to both as their conditions progress.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s can begin in one's 40s or 50s, and such cases amount to 5 percent of the nation's 5.4 million diagnosed cases of Alzheimer’s or dementia. This Alzheimer’s Association brochure helps families plan for what is typically a lengthy caregiving journey.
Best Caregiver for a Special-Needs Child: Martin Bohm, Touch
Single father Martin Bohm (Kiefer Sutherland) watches over his autistic 11-year-old son, Jake (the exceptional young actor David Mazouz) in Fox’s thriller/drama, Touch. Having lost his wife on 9/11, Martin desperately tries to connect with his son, who has never spoken. However, like many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Jake is gifted with numbers. In fact, his character understands the unique way in which number sequences connect everyone on earth. In a series with doses of mystery and spirituality, Martin struggles with having his son treated in a board-and-care facility, only to realize this decision was a mistake, one that eventually leads father and son to go on the run.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in every 88 children has ASD. As they become adults and their parents pass away, their care typically falls to siblings or others. While there is no cure for autism, music and pet therapy, especially therapeutic horseback riding, can sometimes help children with ASD communicate in different ways. The Give the Gift of Voice campaign, launched by actress Holly Robinson Peete and ex-NFL quarterback Rodney Peete's HollyRod Foundation, donates iPads and specially designed software, similar to what the Bohms are seen using on Touch, to help non-verbal children with autism communicate.
Best Spousal Caregiver: Richard Webber, Grey’s Anatomy
During the past few seasons of ABC's Grey's Anatomy, Dr. Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) has dealt with his wife's Alzheimer’s diagnosis. This season found Richard in denial about being able to care for his wife at home, a situation many caregivers face. Series lead Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) recommends that Richard check Adele (Loretta Devine) into the same assisted-living facility where her character's mother, also an Alzheimer's patient, lived during her final years. Meredith's mother, who was played by real-life Alzheimer's care champion Kate Burton, was also a brilliant surgeon who'd had a long-term affair with Richard. (This is, after all, prime-time drama.)
Richard is far from unique. At least 15 million Americans care for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, and one-third of all caregivers are men. While early detection can help families prepare for "the long goodbye" of the disease, the road is still extremely hard for caregivers. About 60 percent of Alzheimer’s caregivers rate their stress levels as very high, and close to half report increased depression over their loved one’s situation — much higher rates of stress and depression than other caregivers experience, with the exception of those caring for a veteran.
Best Caregivers for Veterans: Army Wives and Grey’s Anatomy (tie)
Several series truthfully portray the wounds of war. On Lifetime's Army Wives, psychiatrist Roland Burton (Sterling K. Brown) cares for his wife, Joan (Wendy Davis), an Army lieutenant who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And on Grey's Anatomy, husband-and-wife surgeons Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) and Major Owen Hunt (played by Kevin McKidd, another real-life Alzheimer’s champion) struggle with his PTSD following his tour of duty in Afghanistan. This season, the slow burn of his stress finally pulled them apart.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs, 11 to 20 percent of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans, 10 percent of Desert Storm veterans and 30 percent of Vietnam veterans suffer from PTSD. Women are more likely to be afflicted than men, and blacks and Hispanics are more prone to develop symptoms than whites. It is a mental illness powerfully felt by veterans' families but hard for outsiders to understand because the victims may show no external scars. According to VA research reported in Army Times, a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes.
Best Caregiving Ensemble: Homeland
The Showtime drama Homeland, one of the most riveting series on TV, explores both PTSD and mental illness. Claire Danes plays the brilliant and bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison. As she struggles to convince others that an ex-POW war hero is actually a terrorist, she also strains to keep her mental illness a secret from her superiors, with the help of her sister, Maggie (Amy Hargreaves), and her mentor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin). Carrie’s late-season meltdown, followed by her choice to undergo electro-shock therapy, gives viewers a heartwrenching glimpse into the often painful lives of those with mental illness.
According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four Americans suffer from some form of mental illness. The stigma is difficult both for the afflicted and their family caregivers. About 14 percent of young adults with mental illness are cared for by a sibling, a situation that becomes more common as children age and parents die.