Talking With Michael Kirk

The creator of the documentary Caring for Your Parents discusses the transformative nature of care.

Premiering April 2 on selected PBS stations across the country is Caring for Your Parents, a deftly crafted documentary portrait of five families that have taken on the role of caregiver to aging parents. On the eve of the premiere, Caring spoke with Michael Kirk, who wrote, produced, and directed the film, about what the biggest "mind-blower" was in spending time with multigenerational families (and what he and his dad will be talking about after they watch the premiere).

Q. Why did you decide to make a film about care giving?

A. I'm just old enough that I can no longer be in denial, and I realized a couple of years ago that it was time to start paying attention to this with my own father. I'm a television producer, so the first thing I did was search for a film that could help me, but I didn't find one. I thought, "This really needs to happen."

Q. What has your own experience of care giving been like?

A. It hasn't really happened yet. We're still in that moment where it's time for "the conversation" to start. On April 2, my siblings and my father will watch the film together in Idaho, where they all live. Then we'll all talk about it and begin the process of sorting out our perspectives on what we want to do.

Q. Is this a conversation you hope other families will be having after they watch the film?

A. I hope the film will provide a context for that conversation. A lot of people have told me it's tough to sit down and talk about this stuff with their parents -- but if people watch with their parents, it might get that conversation going.

Q. The film profiles five families who've chosen very different housing options for their parents -- staying in their own homes with and without paid help, moving in with the kids, moving into nursing homes, and so on. Did you walk away with a clearer sense of which option was "best," or which you might prefer for your own father down the line?

A. What I learned is that housing is everything. It's the fundamental issue for siblings and parents -- where are we going to live? Often Mom and Dad are saying, "We never want to go to a nursing home," and no one wants to send their parents to one. But making the film did demystify nursing homes, so you can see they're not just this horrible warehousing option.

There are arguments to be made either way, and maybe it is important to stay in your own home as long as you can, but what happens at that next step? Do you live with me, and I have to go to work all day and you sit at home and watch TV? Or is it better to be with other people who share your interests? In fact, when you get inside the nursing home and look around, Charlotte, one of the parents featured in the film, ended up liking being in one.

Q. There's been a lot of attention paid recently to the pressures faced by the "sandwich generation," and the burdens of care giving, but your film captures moments of real joy between parents and the children who've chosen to care for them.

A. About the third time I came back and looked at the tape, I said, "You know what's going on here? This is a film about love." What I saw through all five families is that a transformation takes place. The care-giving experience becomes a transcendent obligation, a two-way street where the caregiver is receiving as well as giving. That was a mind-blower to me.

I asked, "Did we just get lucky with our characters? Should there be more conflict here?" But the fact is, in a successful care-giving experience, you go through a transformation from doing it out of guilt or obligation to a sense of being in partnership with your parent. The relationship is wholly new, person-to-person, and, as someone says in the film, that's what love is.