The statisticians tell us the “typical” caregiver is a woman in her mid-40s who is caring for one or more parents for about 15 hours per week. She has a job and she is also caring for one or more children. But there’s much more to the story than statistics. In our PBS broadcast, we visit with many of the CareGivers, for they have much to teach us.

There is no listing for “CareGiver” in most employment directories but there are many thousands of us and the ranks are swelling daily. We are home health care workers, nurses, social workers, adult day service staff, recreation therapists, clergy, doctors and administrators.

And Thou Shalt Honor documents an exciting new stage in our cultural development. While the huge increase in the number of caregivers in our society can be said to be a result of the success of medical technology, it also represents a breakthrough in our growth as an extended family.

During the second half of the 20th Century, advances in medical technology made it possible for individuals to survive for years with diseases and chronic conditions that would have made a rapid death just a few years before. Though laudable, this created a new population of persons in need of caregiving … and, therefore, a new population of caregivers.

Many, if not most, of us will be both in our lifetimes — caregiver and the cared-for. We may slip into these roles so gradually that we scarcely realize it. Or, as the social scientists say, we may not self-identify.

And Thou Shalt Honor examines the various aspects of caregiving in a warm and caring documentary coming to PBS stations in October 2002.

The Producers’ Journey

Neither Harry Wiland nor his brother, Michael, had a sister to fall back on when their father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease years ago. From his home in Los Angeles, Harry would travel to Miami to care for his dying father, alternating his trips with Michael’s from New York.

Neither knew there were other people suffering similar disruptions in their family and professional lives. Both felt extremely alone. Both incurred great expense, financial and psychological.

Although the two brothers were drawn together as they had never been before by the experience of caring for their father, they knew “there had to be a better way.” From their collective anger, frustration, and spiritual growth, this PBS CareGiving Series is born.

Dale Bell, partnered with Harry in this project, did have a sister and a brother, both of whom lived closer to their respective mother and father than Dale did. Yet it fell upon Dale, the middle sibling, to travel to both mother and father, separated by divorce almost forty years earlier, and to try to care for their debilitating diseases alone. No outside support, little family support. Too much anger, too little love.

When Dale’s dad died exactly on his 86th birthday, Dale wrote about the exhilarating experience they had shared together over his last weeks and distributed his memoir to those family members who could not bear to “see their Dad in that state.” Over years of travel and daily phone calls to Houston, Dale moved his none-too-cooperative mother from home care to private care to Medicaid as her money depleted. Blind, emaciated, alive only with support from a pacemaker and an oxygen tank, she was “still dying for a cigarette” at 88 when Dale spooned the last bite of her cherished ice cream into her mouth on Mother’s Day. Finally, his solo CareGiving nightmare with this alcoholic, narcissistic, arrogant mother whom he adored for all her positive contributions to his life came to an end. Once the leading model on the walkway at Bergdorf Goodman’s, New York’s premier department store during the 1930’s, she attracted no family members to her services, except Dale.

Two men. Two CareGivers. Both had spent their own money, juggled their personal lives and work, tried to discover support services that were often inadequate, yet both were completely devoted to a mission that added great meaning to their lives. Throughout, the simple act of giving — untutored and unsupported — provided their fuel.

From such atypical yet encompassing experiences, these two men now collaborate to bring the inspirational, personal stories of CareGivers throughout the country to a wider audience through PBS. They are multiple award-winning television producers, writers, and directors, and they now seek to harness the power of the media to bring new appreciation to the needs, concerns and contributions of CareGivers. In addition, by utilizing the vast resources of the Internet, and drawing upon the support of outreach partners like the UCLA Schools of Medicine and Public Health, Stanford University’s Institute for the Study of Women and Gender, MITAge Lab, the Motion Picture Television Fund, American Geriatric Society, Federal Communicable Disease Center, as well as the Board of Advisors and the agencies they represent, Harry and Dale seek to provide CareGivers with access to information, as well as moral and physical support.

Television programming alone does not change things. Yet as our nation has experienced throughout this last half of the century, emotionally driven television can inform and inspire as no other media can.

Our expectation is that our project’s extensive Outreach Campaign will create an event — A NATIONAL HAPPENING — when it is launched before, during and after our series. Whether they feel ennobled, empowered, or simply encouraged to persevere within their own family, our project will have a positive effect on their lives. We are convinced that our CareGiving initiative can make a difference.