Caring Currents

Family Financial Feud: Does This TV Plotline Sound Familiar?

Last updated: Nov 23, 2009

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Last week's episode of Bones, the hit TV crime show, featured a story line that probably felt all too familiar to anyone helping care for an aging parent, spouse, or other family member. It all starts with a phone call: Booth, the hunky detective played by David Boreanaz, gets a call informing him that his beloved grandfather, "Pops," has been kicked out of his retirement facility because he assaulted a nurse.

Of course, in typical TV-land style, the story is soft-pedaled a bit. Pops is an endearing, lovable curmudgeon played by The Waltons veteran Ralph Waite, whose assault was really more of an innocent scuffle.

But the show ventures into real-life territory when Pops comes to live with Booth, and Booth slowly discovers that Pops' memory and ability to function independently aren't what they used to be. Pops himself is in denial, and doesn't seem to realize what's happening -- or be able to acknowledge it -- as his memory lapses and periods of disorientation get him into stickier and stickier and ultimately dangerous situations. Realizing it's not safe to leave his grandfather home alone, Booth ends up having to bring him along each day as he and his partner Brennan embark on their investigations to solve the weekly crime.

Even more realistic, it dawns much more quickly on Brennan -- the outside witness -- that it's not going to be practical or safe for Pops to live with Booth than it occurs to Booth himself. Explaining that his grandfather raised him after his father abandoned the family, Booth says: "He took care of me; now I can take care of him."

Feeling bound by loyalty, duty, and affection, Booth keeps convincing himself he can handle the additional responsibility, coming up with various plans and strategies for handling both his family and work responsibilities. As the situation nears the inevitable crisis, Brennan ends up having to argue with Booth and point out the obvious impossibility of the task he's set for himself.

Does any of this sound familiar?

"¢ An aging parent (or in this case, grandparent) whose mental instability makes it increasingly hard for him to stay in a non-Alzheimer's equipped retirement home
"¢ An adult child who feels bound by love, loyalty, and the desire to "do the right thing"
"¢ Lack of financial options -- this isn't explored much in the episode, but it's clear that nursing help or assisted living would not be an easy option for Booth's working class family
"¢ A cobbled-together solution that works for a while but taxes the adult child beyond what one individual can manage
"¢ Denial on both sides: an aging adult who can't perceive or face the loss of faculties; an adult child who can't bring himself to say, "No, I can't do this."

Again, in TV fashion the situation resolves itself oh-so-neatly without any full-on emotional meltdown. No family battles, tears, rages, guilt-trips, or late-night panicked phone calls.

But the final crisis feels very real: Left alone one day, Pops decides to cook dinner to show his appreciation and almost burns the house down. Booth gets a call from the fire department and rushes home to find Pops seated dejected in the blackened kitchen, angrily blaming the stove. I'm sure many of us in caregiving situations could completely relate; for many years I was on a first-name basis with my hometown firefighters, and had the number of the fire department on speed dial.

What's less realistic is that after the near-tragedy, Pops himself comes to the realization that he needs more help than Booth can give. Even more unlikely: Suddenly the retirement home simply offers to take him back!

By this point, of course, those of us who are or have been caregivers are muttering "Oh come on, that's not what would really happen."

More realistic scenarios?
1. The aging family member still doesn't realize that things aren't working, and the adult child has to have the awful, "We need to find another solution" conversation. Guilt, tears, rage.
2. The family comes to an agreement that the aging parent needs to move into a new home, but can't find one they can afford. More guilt, tears, and lots of phone calls.
3. The financial support is found, but no facility in the area will accept a patient who has been evicted for assault.

You get the picture; and of course you don't need me telling you -- we live this stuff everyday.

But I have to tip my hat to the show's scriptwriters, that they tackled this difficult topic at all. And I'd love to hear your thoughts about how you've handled this dilemma, one that each of us faces in some form or another.