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Nebraska's Commentary on Families and Aging

The movie Nebraska (directed by Alexander Payne) tells the story of an elderly man in Montana named Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his quest to claim a one-million-dollar marketing prize he believes he won from a marketing company in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Nebraska provides insightful commentary on aging in America. Some of its most pertinent themes include an examination of the following issues:

  • Adult children arguing over dad’s care
  • Memory loss
  • Seniors being preyed upon by opportunists
  • The loss of dignity and control

This blog post will examine each of these issues and provide advice for seniors and their families encountering some of these problems.

Adult Children Arguing Over a Parent's Care

Woody believes in this prize's legitimacy, but his wife (Kate) and two sons (David and Ross) cannot convince him that this is a scam. The police have repeatedly caught Woody attempting to hitchhike a ride to Lincoln and returned him to his home. SNL-alum Will Forte plays Woody’s son, David. David feels a great deal of empathy for his elderly father and believes this prize has given him something to live for. Kate (June Squibb) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) disagree with David’s decision to take his father to Nebraska.

Tips on Building Consensus Among Family Members:

  • Kids often disagree over how to care for their parents. The cause of this often has nothing to do with the parents. One kid may resent a sibling because they feel that they disproportionately helped mom and dad. This increased involvement in their parents' lives makes them feel that they should have more influence.
  • Two things must be done to ensure cooperation from the entire family. One, hold a family meeting before a crisis occurs. Two, establish roles to prevent feelings of resentment. Make sure that no one is doing too much or too little.
  • I recommend reading an article from AARP entitled When Siblings Disagree About What's Best for Mom and Dad.

Memory Loss

During their trip to Nebraska, Woody loses his dentures when he falls near the train tracks in the Black Hills. Woody goes to the hospital to receive medical treatment. While in the hospital, he informs David that his teeth fell out of his mouth. They scavenge the train tracks in an attempt to find the lost dentures. David eventually finds a pair of dentures, and the two argue over whether or not this set of lost teeth belong to Woody. The argument concludes when Woody says, "Of course they're my teeth. Don't be a moron."

Tips on Dealing With Memory Loss:

  • Know your family's history of Alzheimer's and dementia.
  • Remain active in the lives of your parents. Ask them about their social life. Seniors with an active social life have better mental health. (HSPH, 2008) Retirement communities provide the ideal place for older adults to meet friends and build lasting relationships.
  • Seniors already experiencing memory loss have different needs. A community where older adults live independently will not provide adequate treatment. Talk with a doctor, and research facilities that specialize in helping people with memory loss.

Opportunists Preying Upon Seniors

Woody's steadfast belief that he has become a millionaire makes him the target of estranged friends and family members. Woody and David are traveling to Lincoln to claim their prize. Before stopping in Lincoln, they stop in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne for an impromptu family reunion. Kate and Ross each travel from Montana for the occasion. However, David's attempt to persuade family members that Woody has not become a millionaire falls on deaf ears. A former business associate and family members each want a piece of the fortune Woody believes he has won. Each of them tell a story where they provided some form of financial assistance to Woody and were never repaid for their generosity.

Tip for Fraud Prevention:

  • I recommend reading the FBI's page on how to deal with common fraud schemes that specifically target seniors. (FBI)

The Loss of Control and Dignity

Woody's only mode of transportation is a broken truck that collects dust in his garage. He has not driven in ten years. Despite this fact, he intends to purchase a new truck once he receives his prize of one million dollars. The truck symbolizes his ability to work, make money, and control his life. 

Woody's body language in the hospital bed also provided an incredibly accurate portrayal of his loss of control and feelings of despair. Late in the movie, David informs his father that they will not go to Lincoln. Woody winds up in the hospital. While on the hospital bed, David continues to persuade his father that they need to go home. Woody turns his head away from his son because he doesn't like what he's hearing. This brief scene resonated with me because my father did the exact same thing when I attempted to tell him something he did not want to hear.

Tips on Preserving Mom and Dad's Sense of Control:

  • Be careful with the language you use when discussing issues that make your parents uncomfortable.
  • Discussing the possibility of moving to a retirement home often engenders a cantankerous response from a parent. Many seniors feel downsizing is an admission that they can no longer control every aspect of their lives. Be patient with your parents and attempt to understand their perspective. Begin this process by planting the idea of moving into a retirement community, but do not rush them into this decision if possible.

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