Dementia on TV

Social science research suggests that our views of reality are often shaped by what we see on television. Now that characters with dementia are popping up on TV, people who have no contact with the disease may view these fictions as portraits of the real thing. Do you think Hollywood is getting it right?

For a while I’ve been tracking two TV characters with distinct forms of dementia. Maw Maw, on the weekly comedy Raising Hope, is the great-grandmother of the Chance family. Cloris Leachman portrays Maw Maw as an endearing person with advanced Alzheimer’s. Her bizarre behavior can be both troubling and useful.  In some episodes, Maw Maw has incredibly lucid moments during which she can fix household appliances — in other shows she lapses into a comatose state or takes her clothes off in public places. There have been a few episodes where things went way over the top — like when Maw Maw attended a wake and stole the dress off a corpse. But every character on this show gets caught doing ridiculous things, so the person with dementia isn’t too much crazier than the other members of the family. For me, the best aspect of this show is the love displayed by all these fictitious creatures and the joy of life that animates their goofy household.

The Kane family, on Boss, enjoys none of this happiness. They have money and power, but they seethe with anger and shared disappointment. Along with the rest of Chicago, the Kanes live in thrall to their family patriarch, the city’s ruthless mayor who secretly suffers from Lewy Body dementia. In recent episodes, Kane’s disease has taken center stage. He’s been whiplashed by hallucinations and manic fits while trying to run an urban empire and keep his foes in check. Since Kane won’t relinquish the reins of power, he has embraced untested therapies to manage his symptoms. His “alternative” cure required injections of stem cells — followed by shock treatments. I haven’t seen the final episodes so I’m not sure if the procedures will improve Kane’s health — or just make him more of a tyrant. The most compelling element of the character is his constant struggle to deal with delusions and keep a grip on reality.

If you are a caregiver for someone with dementia, you might enjoy watching some episodes or just viewing clips of these programs online. If you don’t like the way the disease is portrayed, you can share your opinions on the shows’ websites. Our comments won’t transform the television industry. It revolves around short scripts that maximize melodrama. But we can still complain if we think their images give people an unfair picture of dementia. What are your thoughts?

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