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And the Oscar Goes to…Caregivers

The nominees' lessons on coping and loving while aiding the infirm

By Sherri Snelling

As more than a billion viewers worldwide tune in to watch the Oscars March 2, I will be rooting for three contenders that showcase the reality of caregiving in our lives.

Before the envelopes reveal the winners, you may want to catch these three excellent films and the caregiving messages they deliver.

August – Osage County

My review: Based on the Pulitzer-winning play, this cast of past Oscar winners (Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper) and past nominees (Sam Shepard, Abigail Breslin) dives headfirst into a dysfunctional family drama. It begins with the Weston family gathering at the Oklahoma homestead over the suicide death of patriarch Beverly (Shepard).

Streep, who received her record-breaking 18 Oscar nomination playing the mother Violet, is a viperous pill popper who happens to be dying from mouth cancer (an interesting subtext considering the venom she spews at her nearest and dearest).

Roberts, also nominated for her role here, plays oldest daughter Barbara, who attempts to bring order to the chaos, but through the turmoil sees traces of her mother’s poison in herself.

The interactions between husbands and wives, mothers and children and siblings rival any sordid reality-TV show fare. Yet watching Streep and Roberts is worth the ticket price. Streep is especially amazing as she cycles through Violet’s range of emotions — drug-induced mania, evil spite and vulnerability as a cancer patient.

The caregiving story: Conflict can often occur between siblings caring for an ill parent, but most of us can thank our lucky stars we're not as bad as the Westons. The middle daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), lives in Oklahoma and so becomes the main caregiver for her mom after her father’s death. That doesn’t stop long-distance older sister Barbara from swooping into town from Denver to try to take charge. Youngest sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) is innocent and clueless, giving her the perfect excuse to not get too involved and to return to her frivolous life in Miami.

Streep shows how belligerent, yet fearful, older parents become when stricken with a terminal illness. At one moment, she is verbally attacking all her girls and the next she is trembling over the thought they may decide to move her to assisted living to avoid dealing with her.

The caregiving message: Don’t wait until a caregiving crisis (cancer and suicide in this case) strikes to have the family conversation about end-of-life wishes and how adult children will manage caregiving roles and responsibilities.

(MORE: Are You a Caregiver or Just a Good Child?)


My review: I loved director Alexander Payne’s previous films Sideways and The Descendants, so I felt sure Nebraska would not disappoint.

It didn’t, snagging an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Payne’s insistence on filming in black and white gives this road trip by a distant father and pragmatic son a nostalgic feeling. Bruce Dern (nominated for Best Actor) plays the aging, alcoholic and sometimes addled Woody, a wild-haired Midwesterner who believes he has won a million dollars in a publishing sweepstakes. He intends to get from his home in Montana to Nebraska to collect his money, even if he has to walk.

His 30-something son David (played to understated perfection by comedian Will Forte) is stalled in his life — not passionate about his job or his girlfriend. He decides to drive his dad to Nebraska despite misgivings that this is a fool’s errand. Together they stop in Hawthorne, Woody’s hometown. As the story of Woody’s potential wealth spreads among his old friends and family there, father and son discover the love and respect they have for each other for the first time.

The caregiving story: Pew Research reported last year that men, mostly sons caring for parents, now comprise 45 percent of all family caregivers. Typically, one adult child takes on the majority of caregiving responsibilities. In this film, David is the son who steps in to care for his father, bringing warmth to a film that feels bleak and empty.

(MORE: The Rapid Rise of the Male Caregiver)

During the trip, David comes to know and appreciate his father, and to see things from his father’s perspective. Though David is often frustrated with Woody, he understands his dad’s motivation for wanting to stay relevant and important when life seems near the end. His journey becomes, as it does for many caregivers, a labor of love.


The caregiving message: If you have not been close to a parent, don’t wait too long to spend quality time together and finding out who he or she was growing up. You’ll realize things about yourself in the process. Appreciate your parent's need to stay important in life. And, don’t delay helping your mom or dad get important legal and financial paperwork in order to avoid battles among your siblings and other heirs.

(MORE: How Strong is Your Living Will?)

The Dallas Buyers Club

My review: This gritty look back at the dawning of the age of AIDS in the '80s reminds us how far we have come in addressing an epidemic and cultural stigma.

Matthew McConaughey should capture Oscar gold as Best Actor playing real-life Ron Woodroof, the man who skirted the FDA, IRS, border patrol and society’s rules to deliver life-prolonging drugs to AIDS patients like himself.

When doctors tell Ron, an electrician by day, hustler and rodeo bull rider by night, that he has the mysterious new disease and will die within a month, this Dallas cowboy decides to work feverishly to stay alive.

He finds an American doctor in Mexico and discovers that organic remedies such as peptides may provide an alternative solution to the trial drug AZT. Realizing he’s not the only AIDS patient looking for a miracle, Woodroof creates a buyers club — monthly membership for drugs he supplies that skirt taxes and medical ethics issues.

Along the way, he reluctantly partners with gay transsexual Rayon (an Oscar-worthy performance by Best Supporting Actor nominee Jared Leto) to attract customers to the Dallas Buyers Club. When Ron’s heterosexual friends abandon him, he discovers love and support through his new-found gay friends, and forms solid relationships he had been missing his whole life.

Through this network of friends and alternative drug therapy, Ron beats the odds and lives seven years beyond his original diagnosis.

The caregiving story: The patients in the movie form a support network that helped them withstand the societal stigma that came with AIDS in the 1980s. Today, the stigma of this disease has decreased, but other disorders and diseases such as Alzheimer’s, autism, mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI) are just as misunderstood and carry stigma for patients and family caregivers alike.

The caregiving message: Don’t try to manage your loved one’s illness alone. Caregivers need support — whether in-person or online. Connecting with others who understand what you are going through is critical to your ability to stay strong and keep carrying on your caregiving duties.

Photograph of Sherri Snelling
Sherri Snelling is a gerontologist, consultant and national speaker specializing in caregiver wellness. She is CEO and founder of Caregiving Club and author of A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care. Read More
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