I watch a lot of detective shows.  I know I’m not alone, because it seems like every time I open Netflix or Amazon Video, I have more options to choose from.  Lately, I’ve been noticing that a lot of these series show their main characters—usually police detectives or other crime-solving types—caring for aging family members.  I don’t know whether this is a recent trend sparked by increasing public conversations around issues of aging and caregiving or whether I’m simply noticing it more because of where I now work.

In this post, I’ll break down how three shows address what happens when a character’s job responsibilities come up against his or her role as a caregiver.  All three of these shows are British crime series.  This reflects only my own taste in television; I tend to watch quite a few British shows.  None of the shows is current.  The oldest started airing over two decades ago and the most recent came to Netflix in 2016.

In this post, I’m primarily interested in how popular culture treats family caregiving.  I analyze three series: The BBC’s Silent Witness, Netflix’s The Five, and ITV’s Inspector Lewis.  What’s particularly interesting about the three series I analyze here is that aging family members are simply part of the characters’ lives.  All of these shows center around crime solving, not around family relationships, but the shows’ creators all choose to spotlight caregiving for aging parents as a central to their main character’s personal lives.

Silent Witness

The BBC’s Silent Witness aired its first season in 1996.  It’s still on and aired its twenty-first season in 2018.  I’ve only recently started watching it (via Amazon Prime), so I’ve only seen the first two and half seasons.  The show focuses on forensic pathologists who help detectives solve crimes by looking closely at remains—and sometimes by getting more involved in investigations than the detectives would like.  The first seasons follow Dr. Sam Ryan, a pathologist of Irish descent who moves to Cambridge to work as a professor and police consultant and to be nearer to her sister and aging mother.

Mrs. Ryan has dementia.  Sam’s sister, Wyn, lives with her and is her primary caregiver.  Ever since their father was killed by an IRA bomb when they were teenagers, the two sisters have had a contentious relationship.  Wyn blames Sam for their father’s death and holds her responsible for their mother’s decline.  By the last episode of the first season, Mrs. Ryan cannot remember that her husband is dead and often does not recognize Sam.  When she starts wandering away from home, Sam decides it’s probably time to find a nursing home where Mrs. Ryan will be safe.  Wyn disagrees.  Though she is their mother’s primary caregiver and bears most of the brunt of her care, she refuses to seriously consider the idea and fails to turn up for a tour of a possible community.  At one point, she tells Sam, “I will not put my mother in some bloody awful home so that you don’t have to look at what you’ve done.”

Silent Witness offers a compelling and realistic portrayal of the conflict between siblings over caring for an aging parent.  Wyn wants help, but she doesn’t want help from professionals.  She wants help from her sister.  The fact that she’s been away for a long time gives Sam some distance and perspective that Wyn doesn’t have, but it also makes it hard for Wyn to take her seriously.  At the same time, Sam’s intense job as a medical examiner and teacher (who spends the majority of the episode in question investigating the death of her student’s fiancé) means she doesn’t have time to do much hands-on caregiving.  To her, a nursing home is the best solution for everybody.  A nice nursing home would keep Mrs. Ryan safe and relieve the burden on Wyn.  But to Wyn, whether the home is “bloody awful” or perfectly pleasant is actually immaterial, because the conflict is less about caring for Mrs. Ryan than about getting her sister to live up to her responsibilities.

By the end of season one, the show has set up a real tension between Sam’s career and her caregiving responsibilities.  When Sam leaves a family dinner citing a work emergency, Wyn says, “I am an emergency.  Mummy is an emergency.”  Sam chooses work, believing that the family “emergencies” can be worked out later.  The show ends its first season letting viewers, too, believe that this is the case.  The question of where Mrs. Ryan will live is not resolved; all we really know is that she has not moved in to a nursing home.  But by the first episode of season two, Mrs. Ryan has died.  Sam and Wyn never have to come to an agreement, and Sam never has to confront the choice between career and caregiving.  Ultimately, Silent Witness acknowledges the conflict but chooses not to resolve it on screen.

The Five

Twenty years after the first season of Silent Witness aired, Netflix’s The Five explored a different kind of family conflict over caregiving and offered a unique twist on the topic.  The Five follows a group of friends, one of whom is a police detective, as they try to figure out why the fingerprints of Jesse, a murdered boy, have turned up at a crime scene two decades after he was allegedly killed.  Detective Danny Kenwood’s father has Alzheimer’s disease, and one of the opening shots in the first episode shows Danny examining, and then discarding, a brochure for a Memory Support community.

As the series continues, viewers learn more Danny’s father, Ray, and his place in Danny’s household.  Ray lives with Danny and his family, and because of Danny’s busy life as a police detective, his wife Jennifer does most of the day-to-day caretaking.  We also learn that Ray was the detective who investigated Jesse’s disappearance and murder.  When Danny first shows Ray a picture of Jesse and asks him about the case, Ray responds by blowing raspberries.  As Danny pursues the case, he learns that Ray altered files relating to the case, and this fact helps confirm that Jesse wasn’t actually dead.

Perhaps because he’s trying to get information related to his work, we see Danny do a lot more hands-on caregiving than, say, Sam of Silent Witness.  He feeds his father meals and spends time with him in spite of his busyness.  But it’s not just the demands of caregiving that make Ray’s presence in their house difficult for Jennifer.  Because of his disease, Ray is frequently disruptive during family time, and it’s difficult for Jennifer and Danny to get time alone together.  Danny sees that his wife is struggling, but he’s devoted to his father, to whom he looks up both personally and professionally.

It’s not until Jennifer leaves and threatens not to return that Danny sees just how much of a toll his father’s needs have taken on his marriage.  When he realizes that he might have to choose between his marriage and having his father in his house, Danny decides to move his father into a specialized Memory Support Community.  This is a happy ending for the Kenwood family.  As Danny tells Jennifer about his decision, he promises to take the family on vacation and to prioritize their needs over work as well as his father.  Unlike Sam and Wyn of Silent Witness, Danny of The Five does have to make a decision, and that decision plays out as a resolution.

Inspector Lewis

In the eighth and final season of ITV’s Inspector Lewis (2016), however, we see that moving a parent with dementia into a Memory Support community does not always mark the end of family conflict over caregiving responsibilities.  Over the course of its eight seasons, Inspector Lewis subtly but definitely emphasizes the personal costs of detectives’ jobs.  The title character misses milestones in his children’s and grandchildren’s lives, and his partner, Detective Sargent—and by the eighth season, Inspector—Hathaway at several points has to choose between his personal and professional loyalties.

In the final season, Hathaway’s sister, Nell, decides that the time has come to move their father into a Memory Support Community.  After an early visit goes poorly, Hathaway refuses to engage with his father.  Throughout the rest of the season’s first episode, Nell repeatedly leaves Hathaway messages reminding him of his responsibilities.  Viewers get the sense that Hathaway hasn’t been a particularly involved son.  This is the first we’ve heard of his father’s dementia, and Nell says, “It’s easier to pretend nothing’s wrong, isn’t it?  And leave it to me to pick up the pieces yet again.”  There’s a lot of back-and-forth between Hathaway and Nell, all with the implication that Hathaway has failed his family responsibilities because he prioritizes work.

The senior Mr. Hathaway goes to live in the Memory Support community because caring for him is too much for Nell and Hathaway doesn’t help, but that’s not the end of the conflict.  In fact, it’s only the beginning.  Nell wants Hathaway to be involved and visit, and he resists.  Finding the right community for a loved one can ease the day-to-day burdens of caregiving, but family members don’t stop being family members just because they don’t live with you anymore.  As The Five suggests, the right community can make a big difference in the lives of caregivers.  But Inspector Lewis reminds us that how to divide the various responsibilities of caring for an aging family member is an ongoing concern.

Time is hardly the only reason Hathaway avoids seeing his father.  In his first visit, the older Mr. Hathaway doesn’t recognize his son and doesn’t remember that his wife is dead.  Hathaway struggles to accept that he can no longer interact with his father in the ways that he used to, over books and intellectual pursuits.  Nell’s exasperation comes as much from her brother’s refusal to accept their changed parent as from the burden he places on her. Eventually, with Lewis’s help, Hathaway reconnects with his father over fishing.  Mr. Hathaway’s dementia is not going to get better, and once he accepts that, Hathaway finds a way to enjoy his company.  His acceptance of his father’s condition also helps him reconcile with Nell.

Taken together, Silent Witness, The Five, and Inspector Lewis portray a range of possible responses to family conflict over caregiving.  The ways the three shows resolve (or not) the conflicts in question show that careers and caregiving can coexist.  Some time in the twenty years between the first season of Silent Witness and the final season of Inspector Lewis, the subject of caring for aging family members came to the forefront of public discourse.  Also during that time, options for dementia care increased in both range and reputation, so Hathaway and Nell have choices that Sam and Wyn don’t.  Overall, these three shows offer a compelling narrative of the conflict between career and caregiving—and the way that conflict both has and hasn’t changed over time.

In the final week leading up to Christmas, groups that celebrate advent focus on love.  If you look up the word “love” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, you get a lot of different definitions.  For starters, because it’s both a noun and a verb, love has two different entries.  The first (noun) entry alone boasts nine different definitions, and the second (verb) has five.*

Usually, we think of love as either romantic or familial, but those aren’t the only ways to use to word.  As I walk the halls of Immanuel, I see many different expressions of love.  Not every definition in the dictionary is appropriate, of course, but several are.  Here are just a few examples, organized by the dictionary definitions they meet:

1: Strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties (noun)

  • This one is personal; my Grandpa lives at Buffalo Hill Terrace, so I get to see him, and tell him I love him, more often than I would otherwise. In general, Immanuel is great at involving families in resident activities and milestones.  In recent weeks, for example, at the various Christmas dinners held on campus, families and friends came to enjoy gourmet dinners with residents.  As residents and their guests ate and chatted, the atmosphere was full of love.**
  • I’ve also seen staff express love for residents by residents by learning their likes, dislikes, and histories. A few months ago, I heard a great story.  A CNA in the Assisted Living department learned that a resident was of German descent and spoke German.  She was born in Germany and also spoke the language, so she began speaking to him in German.  As a result, they developed a special bond.

2: Warm attachment, enthusiasm, or devotion (noun); to like or desire actively: take pleasure in (verb)

  • There’s a resident at the Skilled Care Center who loves music. Whenever I see her while music is playing, she has her eyes closed and is listening intently, maybe a swaying a little bit in time to it.  Live music is a common feature of recreation calendars across campus, so she has many opportunities to enjoy it.  When she expressed a desire to meet a band playing at an event, the Recreation staff made it possible.  Immanuel staff care that she has what she loves.
  • My Grandpa loves playing games. Almost every Thursday, he meets a group of other residents in a common space to play a card game called Hand and Foot.  All of them love engaging in this activity that brings them pleasure, made possible by the fact that they live in community togheter.
  • A couple of months ago, Passions Project participant and popular canine Terrace resident Toby Maurer turned ten years old. For his birthday, the Recreation and Wellness staff took him a large treat.  Toby’s owners David and Martha love him very much, of course, and they appreciated the recognition by the staff of their beloved pet.

3: Unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another (noun)

  • I see this one every day because it’s embedded in Immanuel’s culture. The examples below are the tip of a lovely iceberg.
  • Recently, a resident wasn’t feeling well. He went to the dining room anyway, and the waitstaff noticed that he wasn’t himself.  They made sure a staff member brought a wheelchair to get him safely back to his apartment.  This is part of a larger pattern where dining staff know the residents well enough to know what their “normal” is—as an expression of their loving hearts.
  • Every year, one of the churches in our region takes the time to find out what each resident in the Skilled Care Center would like for Christmas. Volunteers from the church then purchase and deliver the gifts, so all residents get a present tailored specifically for their wants.  This church is some distance away, and most members of the congregation have never met the residents.  They purchase and deliver these gifts out of unselfish love.

*For the grammar nerds out there, there are four definitions for “love” as a transitive verb and one as an intransitive verb.  This is a word with many properties.

**Of course, love of the food was also a commonly-expressed emotion.  See also definition 2.

When I walk down the hallway between Buffalo Hill Terrace and The Villas, where The Passions Project photos now hang, I am struck by one particular quality all the photos share.  Each photo shows a resident finding joy, often in an activity they’ve done for a large part of their life.

That is certainly the case for Buffalo Hill Terrace resident Ken Larson.  Just the other day, as my coworker and I walked through the lobby of the Terrace, we heard piano music (Christmas carols, of course!) coming from the auditorium.  When we peaked in to see who was playing, we saw that it was Ken.  This isn’t surprising, because Ken has been playing various pianos at Immanuel Lutheran Communities for the last twenty years.

And he’s been playing other pianos for much longer than that.  Ken started playing when he was a child growing up on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  There was always music in his family.  His mother (a schoolteacher) often played the piano for pleasure, and his father was a barber—who sang in barbershop quartets.  Ken’s childhood piano teacher was a woman who had emigrated to the United States from Cornwall, England.  That he enjoyed his lessons is made clear by the fact that he’s never stopped playing.

As a young man, Ken joined the United States Army, and he was sent to Korea just after the end of the war.  Though he was an infantryman, at the time he was there, his unit needed a piano player for church services.  Ken’s talents made him a perfect candidate for the job, and he spent the next sixteen months on this assignment.

After he came home from Korea, Ken got a job in timber management and sales administration, which eventually brought him to Montana.  He never gave up playing the piano because playing music continued to bring him joy.  At times, he’s also sung (baritone) in a barbershop chorus, but piano is what he’s stuck with most consistently.  Ken’s favorite music to play is music from the 1920s, including songs by Walter Donaldson, Irving Berlin, and Gus Khan.

Since he retired in 1982, Ken has spent even more time playing music.  When his father was in a nursing home in Whitefish, Ken saw how much all the residents there enjoyed music.  He formed a band, the main purpose of which was to play music for nursing home residents.  His current band is called Razzamatazz.  It includes a cornet, saxophone, drums, and a singer, as well as Ken on piano.  They play for nursing homes and retirement communities around the Flathead Valley.  Just this week I heard them playing Christmas carols for the residents of the Immanuel Skilled Care Center and saw how much the residents were enjoying them.

Ken plays music because it brings him joy.  It brings just as much joy to his listeners.  A few weeks ago, I was talking with some residents about a concert at the Terrace that afternoon.  Because the music was a recent addition and wasn’t on the calendar, they weren’t sure who it was.  “Is it Ken?” they asked me eagerly.  That time, it wasn’t, but he’s played for them at least once since, and his performances are always eagerly anticipated.

And in case there was any doubt about how committed Ken is to bringing joy to others through music, I’ll share that he donated the beautiful baby grand piano in our new auditorium.  From the beginning of our search for a piano for the new space, Ken was an asset.  He helped us decide what size of piano to get and consulted on the brand and selection.  When we chose the piano that’s there now, he told us he wanted to donate it to the community, showing his generous heart.  Thank you, Ken, for all you do to bring joy to seniors in our community and beyond!

As we approach the ends of our lives, I think most of us desire some form of peace.  What that looks like will be different for everyone, of course.  For some people, peace genuinely means an absence of conflict.  They want to be surrounded by harmony and, perhaps (though not necessarily) quiet.  Others don’t mind a little conflict.  What they mean by peace has to do with relative financial security and the ability and freedom to spend their time as they choose.  Still others think of peace primarily in terms of physical comfort; they want to be in a place where their needs are attended to and to not spend their final years in pain or worrying about day-to-day necessities.

At Immanuel, we strive to help our residents find peace in whatever way is most important to them.  At the Immanuel Skilled Care Center, this means offering private rooms with private bathrooms to the majority of residents, regardless of who pays their bills.  This allows residents the peace of their own private space to use how they need and want to, whether that’s reading a book in silence or watching a TV show that others around them don’t enjoy.  It also allows them to entertain their visitors on their own schedules without worrying about disturbing someone else’s peace.

Residents move into Immanuel Lutheran Communities for all kinds of reasons.  Especially for independent residents, one of those reasons is that they want the peace of knowing that someone else is taking care of day-to-day maintenance tasks.  Snow and ice is always a possibility during Flathead Valley winters, and when it inevitably arrives, the maintenance team does a great job of keeping sidewalks and parking lots clear and safe.  And when they can’t quite keep pace with the winter weather (because in the Flathead, it can be relentless), they and other team members let residents know what areas are safe and which ones will be soon.  Residents have both the peace of not having to shovel or arrange for someone else to do it and the peace of knowing they’ll be as safe as possible when they do choose to go outside.

Of course, peace might also mean having people around you who care that you have ways to spend your time that are pleasant and enjoyable for you.  Across campus, our recreation teams plan full calendars of activities.  Many residents find peace in knowing that, by the first day of a new month, they will have the schedule for the whole month.  That way, they can plan their days and make sure they don’t miss out on their favorite fun events.  They have the peace of knowing that that staff care not only about their physical wellbeing but also about their emotional wellbeing, happiness, and pleasure.  For many residents, the spiritual services and pastoral care available every day at Immanuel contribute significantly toward their experience of peace.

No matter what kind of peace a resident desires, at Immanuel, we strive to help them find it.  When you give to the resident care fund, you too help residents find peace.  You also help Immanuel find peace by helping to close the gap between what Medicaid pays and what it costs to offer services like private rooms.  By becoming part of our community of donors, you, too can give the gift of peace this holiday season.