A tip of the cowboy hat to a fictional assisted living portrayal

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Elizabeth Newman, McKnight's Senior Editor
Elizabeth Newman, McKnight's Senior Editor

I have found a positive portrayal of long-term care, and it's in Dallas.

Specifically, it's in Dallas — in the pilot plot arc of J.R. Ewing.

For those of you who missed this pinnacle of soap opera achievement 25-some years ago (either because you did not have the wherewithal as a child to sneak out of bed to watch it, as I did, or because you spent the 1980s doing other things on Friday nights other than hang with the Ewings), I can summarize what you missed: J.R. Ewing, bad; Bobby Ewing, good; oil, clothes, money, sex, horses.  

That's really all you need to know if you are embarking on TNT's 2012 Dallas revival, which has its finale airing on August 8. (You can catch up on previous episodes at www.dallastnt.com or via Amazon).

This is the type of summer show where you think you are going to watch a few minutes, and the next thing you know you are up until midnight, with your parents and sister, hootin' and hollerin' at the television screen.

This is partially because while this new generation of Ewings is so, so pretty, they are really bad with technology, to the point where it will make you feel good if you have had a bad day managing your electronic health records or just computer woes. A major plot point in the pilot revolves someone breaking into someone else's office to load a flash drive with documents — of news stories. Someone else has a startling revelation — because of a search engine. And our personal favorite plot twist revolved around a relationship torn apart by a mysterious email, because clearly email is always secure and should never be followed up with human conversation.

But if you can put all that silliness aside, there's actually an interesting point about assisted living in nouveau Dallas.

When we are first introduced to J.R., he's in what appears to be a near coma-like state related to clinical depression. We know this because the caregiver tells Bobby that J.R. is “in and out, Mr. Ewing. Clinical depression is like that.”

There's no way around it — J.R. looks like every sad and depressed resident you have ever seen (only with awesome eyebrows). But here's where it gets interesting. J.R., motivated by greed and a visit from his son, soon pulls himself out his leather chair, eats some Jell-O, and is soon trying to reclaim his birthright.

Yes, as a long-term care provider you will have to suspend disbelief related to how J.R. apparently can get physical therapy in his room, hop on a plane to Mexico, and afford a high-end assisted or independent living apartment when he may or may not have lost his fortune several decades ago.

No matter — you and your residents will cheer when he throws his walker aside at a ball to walk over to his ex-wife. (Welcome back, Linda Gray!).

The man, as one character says, is not only “too mean to die,” but also has something to live for.

Am I advocating that you find a way for your residents to backstab their family members, come up with complicated plots over land, have affairs, or don cowboy hats? I am not. But in all our pop culture portrayals of either lauding saintly grandmother types, trying to make people cringe laugh at the idea of old people being sexual (I'm looking at you, Betty White), or introducing the wacky grandfather, it's refreshing to see a complex character in his 80s get a new lease on life. 

J.R. is old, and he may need help with activities of daily living. But much like your residents, don't underestimate what he can do with a little motivation. Or as John Ross, J.R.'s son, says in the pilot (in the middle of the Dallas Cowboys football field, natch), “the fun is just beginning.”

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editor's Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor on Monday and Friday; Staff Writer Tim Mullaney on Tuesday, Editor James M. Berklan on Wednesday and Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman on Thursday.

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