Most of America's 65 million family caregivers don't share their stories. Focused on day-to-day challenges, they tend to carry their burdens alone. Fortunately, some top television shows are casting a positive light on the struggles inherent in a role that most viewers, after all, will themselves play someday.
With Emmy season upon us – the prime-time ceremony will be aired live on CBS on Sunday, Sept. 22 – we've compiled our own version of the awards highlighting for the second successive year the programs that have most sensitively portrayed America's caregivers on screen. (See last year's winners here.)
Best End-of-Life Caregiving Conversation: Grey's Anatomy
Throughout its nine-year run, ABC's Grey's Anatomy has featured ongoing storylines about Alzheimer's disease, a condition affecting at least 5.4 million Americans. This past season, title character Dr. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), who lost her mother (Kate Burton) to the disease, made the decision to undergo testing to discover whether she carried genetic markers for Alzheimer's. In the episode "The More You Genome," the 30-something surgeon talks to her husband and colleague Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey, who has been a caregiver for his own mother during her multiple bouts with ovarian cancer) and best friend Dr. Cristina Yang (played by Sandra Oh) about her wishes for end-of-life care once she starts to experience memory loss, as she assumes she will.
Best Dramatic Series: Ruth and Erica
Not all of the season's best viewing was on traditional networks or even premium cable channels, as the Emmy nods for the Netflix original series House of Cards makes clear. We follow suit by giving the best drama award to Ruth and Erica, a 13-episode arc on YouTube's WIGS channel featuring Maura Tierney (ER) as a daughter struggling to care for, and manage, her Alzheimer's-stricken father (Philip Baker Hall) and fiercely independent but increasingly frail mother (Lois Smith, True Blood). A cast of familiar stars, including Steven Weber, Michael C. Hall and Jane Kaczmarek contribute to the powerful story and help make this fictional family's journey as true as any reality show. This is must-see online viewing.
Best Dramatic Episode: Blue Bloods
In the CBS police drama Tom Selleck plays New York City police commissioner Frank Reagan, part of a family law-enforcement dynasty. In this season's episode "Greener Grass," Frank struggles with his live-in father Henry's diminished driving skills – one of the toughest conversations caregivers face with an older parent. After several unexplained accidents and fender benders, Frank's attempt to talk to his dad (Len Cariou), a proud former police commissioner himself, about giving up his keys goes horribly wrong leaving father and son angry and frustrated. Ultimately, Frank's daughter, Erin (Bridget Moynahan), an assistant district attorney, intervenes in a meeting with her father and her grandfather and a surprising solution is found.
Best (Conflicted) Caregiving Sons: Pete Campbell, Mad Men and Jack Donaghy, 30 Rock
The nation is witnessing a dramatic rise in the number of men acting as primary caregivers. According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, males make up as much as 42 percent of family caregivers today. Prime-time TV reflected that reality this year in its portrayal of two characters from different times, 1960s junior ad exec Pete Campbell of Mad Men (Vincent Kartheiser) and contemporary NBC kingpin Jack Donaghy of 30 Rock (Alec Baldwin). Both men have tense, testy relationships with disapproving mothers yet step in, even if it's reluctantly, to provide care when needed.
In AMC's Mad Men, recently separated Pete takes on the primary caregiving role for his bitingly harsh mother Dorothy (Channing Chase). She displays progressive signs of Alzheimer's disease, so Pete secures a male nurse, Manolo, for her 24/7 care. One poignant moment occurs when news breaks that Robert Kennedy has been shot. Dorothy wakes Pete to tell him, but he responds that President Kennedy was shot years ago and she must be confused. The reality is that while dementia patients often appear to live in the past, they still have moments of clarity and this, sadly, was one.
In the season finale we learn that Dorothy may have been a victim of fraud and foul play. Pete gets a call telling him that his mother fell overboard while on a cruise with her male nurse who has possibly become her lover as well. That episode is all about loss as Pete, already smarting from losing his mother's love to Manolo, realizes that she may now truly be gone forever, lost at sea.
NBC's 30 Rock, a wry sitcom, took a lighter approach. Broadway legend Elaine Stritch's gravelly voice and deadpan humor was always pitch perfect in her recurring role as Jack's difficult and demanding mother, Colleen, throughout the show's seven-season run. Jack once described her as "87 years old, which is 14 in demon years." In her final appearance, in the episode "My Whole Life Is Thunder," Colleen uncharacteristically tells Jack she only wants him "to be happy" and then promptly has a heart attack in a New York City hansom cab. They had been on the way to the hospital, in the only vehicle she'd agree to ride. Jack, kicking and screaming, had arranged for his mother's care for years (even having a torrid affair with one of her nurses, played by Salma Hayek). With her death, he finally realized that beneath the fights and frustration was true love – even if it was somewhat dark and twisted – from the only woman who could deflate his oversize ego.
(MORE: The Rapid Rise of the Male Caregiver)
Best Special Needs Caregiver: Kristina Braverman, Parenthood
NBC's Parenthood features Max Braverman (Max Burkholder), a teenager with Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by significant difficulty in social interaction and nonverbal communication. His mom, Kristina, is played by Monica Potter, who has shared her own experience as a caregiver to her father on the public-television series Your Turn to Care.
In this season's episode "I'll Be Right Here," Max, encouraged by Kristina and supported by his big sister, Haddie, stands on stage before his entire junior high school and talks openly about his condition for the first time, as part of his unlikely but ultimately successful campaign to become student council president. The show's executive producer, Jason Katims, has a son with autism, making him one of 17 million Americans who care for a special needs child.
Best Caregiver for a Veteran: Leroy Jethro Gibbs, NCIS
Sometimes caregiving is provided not by a parent or spouse but by a friend. In a two-episode arc this season, the CBS drama NCIS portrayed an Iraqi war veteran facing the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), a steely special agent with a sensitive side, helps Marine Capt. Joe Westcott (Brad Beyer) retrace his steps to a horrible Middle East incident, aiding investigators in solving a stateside murder in the process. Gibbs, a former Marine, understands Westcott's pain and goes beyond the call of duty to help the vet's father and brother understand the challenges of caring for the invisible wounds of war.
Best Caregivers for People With Mental Illness: Call Me Crazy – A Five Film
This groundbreaking, two-hour program of interlocking short stories about living with mental illness aired on Lifetime this season and starred Jennifer Hudson, Octavia Spencer, Melanie Griffith and Lea Thompson (who has been a caregiver for her mother, an Alzheimer's patient). Individual segments were also directed by well-known stars, including Ashley Judd, Bryce Dallas Howard and Bonnie Hunt. The program was timely and essential. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that as many as 1 in 4 adults in the United States has a diagnosable mental disorder, and yet the stigma of mental illness continues to force patients and their family caregivers into the shadows. These moving short films depict the real drama of caring for loved ones facing bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress.