Tag Archives: cultural sensitivity

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?

Creating the Happiest Holidays

This special spring weekend marks the time when many families will be celebrating Easter and Passover. It’s a time when traditions and memories unite people with a shared history. But for those with dementia it can also be a time of difficulty due to changes in routine and feelings of agitation.

It’s not easy to merge those segments of the family who love taking this break to do something out of the ordinary — and those we need extra structure. Some of us enjoy hauling out the old recipes and spending hours preparing foods we enjoyed during childhood. But getting tied up in the kitchen might mean taking a lot of time away from loved ones who are used to getting our full attention. It’s not easy to involve them in holiday preparations but figuring out how to do it can help them — and might improve the quality of family gatherings.

My mother’s Adult Day program sent our family a list of recommendations that help minimize holiday agitation for dementia patients. Here are a few suggestions that may help your family, too:

  • Prepare your loved one for visitors. Sometimes you have to say it a hundred times, but just making sure they know there will be different people around can help to minimize their confusion.
  • If possible, show them pictures before people arrive or ask people to wear name tags. Some people may think it’s a little strange, but I did it when some of my mom’s old friends came to visit her and it made things a bit easier.
  • Keep one quiet area in the house where the person with memory loss can retreat if things get too hectic.
  • Reminisce about past holidays. Sometimes these conversations trigger memories or pleasant feelings that can calm them and bring them a greater sense of joy.
  • Recognize that its common for caregivers to experience feelings of anger, frustration and grief around holiday times. Be prepared for some extra stress and plan some downtime into the end of the day so you can unwind.

Although my mother is very impaired, I know many people who lost a parent before they had the chance to really know them. I feel fortunate to have my mom with me and I try to squeeze all the joy I can from our holiday get togethers. There are no guarantees in life, so it seems wise to choose happiness on those occasions when it’s offered.