'Derek' — a long-term care shrink's view

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Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D.
Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D.

I was very pleased when I heard there was a program about a long-term care facility on British television. Finally we're getting our props — at least overseas.

Derek” is the story of a simple but kind middle-aged man who works in a quiet assisted living home with an assortment of misfits who staff the place. The show is alternatively funny and sad and definitely worth watching, especially to see how our work is portrayed to the public. 

I was struck immediately by the depiction of the staff members as lonely and unable to fit into society at large. That isn't my experience of the staff in LTC facilities. I've found most staff members to have vibrant lives and great energy they bring with them into their jobs. Many of them have left political and economic upheaval in their home countries to start anew in the United States.

They have goals for themselves and their families, a strong spiritual path, and long-term care isn't so much a job as it is a calling. Sure, there are some with anger issues and trouble at home as there are in any workplace, but for the most part, I've found LTC staff to be hip and happening (even if it's no longer hip and happening to use that expression!).

What rang true for me regarding the staff was the portrayal of how connected staff and residents can be to one another and how they can positively influence each other's lives. In the first episode, we observe the unfolding of Derek's relationship to one particular resident who reminds him of his mother. Talking with elders in LTC has had a huge and beneficial impact on my life and I'm sure most of us will relate to that emotional connection with those in our care.

The show also addresses how family members become part of the life of the home, which echoes the reality of the long-term care experience. When a resident is admitted, so is his or her family in a way.  When a resident dies or is discharged, we lose all of them.

One aspect of “Derek” that surprised me is the lack of reflection on the lives of the residents. I've watched three episodes thus far and the focus has been on the staff rather than the aged occupants of the home. Perhaps because I'm a shrink and I spend most of my time talking to residents, I've had the good fortune to hear about their lives, accomplishments, and challenges with aging and living in a communal setting. I hope further episodes consider the richness of the residents and the joy (and sometimes consternation) they can bring to those who work with them.

The show explores regulators and cutbacks, which will undoubtedly resonate with LTC viewers. What will probably surprise you are the hardiness of the residents and the lack of medical equipment or medically trained staff. Also notable is a casual disregard for basic regulations, such as having a friend of a worker hang about the place and eat the food just because …well, because Derek likes him. But I guess having oddball characters like him makes for better television.

For me, it's exciting to see our line of work being explored in a television drama.  For years there have been shows about cops and lawyers, hospitals and schools, but never one about long-term care. Perhaps this is a sign of the rising tide of baby boomers and their intensifying interest in all things elder care.

(For another McKnight's blogger's views on “Derek,” click here.)

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, PhD, the author of The Savvy Resident's Guide, is an accomplished speaker and consultant with over 16 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care. This blog complements her award-winning website, MyBetterNursingHome.com, which has more on how to create long-term care where EVERYBODY thrives.

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