Caring for Elderly Parents? This Documentary Is for You

Woman pushes her mother in wheelchair

Filmmaker Michelle Boyaner talks about the humor and heartache of caring for elderly parents

Below is an original piece by Michelle Boyaner, whose film IT’S NOT A BURDEN: The Humor and Heartache of Raising Elderly Parents is now streaming.

Growing up, I was a bedwetter. Like, if there had been competitions, I definitely would’ve gone to nationals. It was soul-crushing, and unfortunately, the person with the least patience for my overnight dryness failures was my mom. That irony wasn’t lost on me when, as an adult, I ended up addressing the incontinence issues that began plaguing her.

Fast-forward 40 years from my bedwetting days. I’d just dropped to the floor of a crowded public restroom at a movie theater and performed an awkward version of the “superhero belly crawl” underneath the locked handicapped stall door. In that stall was my 77-year old mom, Elaine, trapped on the toilet seat that just 10 minutes earlier, she’d insisted she could dismount from herself.  

Upon my arrival in the stall, I saw that she was crying. She had initially been shrieking my name, “Michelllllllle,” like some kind of ancient battle cry, but now she was weeping. Soon I was, too. She didn’t want me to help her up from the toilet, and I definitely didn’t want to be there. Eventually we both stopped weeping and started laughing. We finally got her off the seat, rearranged her clothes, and seated her back in her wheelchair, ready to hurry off to the 11:30am showing of Magic Mike XXL. (It was 2015 and her choice, for the record.)

When we exited the stall, there was a woman standing near the sink watching us, with tears in her eyes. As we walked by, she put her hand on my shoulder and said that her mother had recently passed away, and that she missed moments like the one she’d just overheard. She told me that I was a good daughter and that I should cherish every moment I got to spend with my mom. 

Michelle helps her mother into the car
Michelle helping her mother Elaine into the car

At the time, I was preoccupied with the details of caring for my mother, who’d been experiencing kidney problems and was in the beginning stages of memory loss. As I researched her issues, it felt like working on the most important term paper ever — I needed to find out everything I could do to help her. My parents had divorced 30 years earlier, and my dad and I raised my younger brothers and sisters on our own. This was never the relationship I was supposed to have with my mom. But suddenly it was. 

I remember watching my dad help care for his mother, who he spoke to every night on the phone and visited as often as his busy schedule working two jobs and raising seven kids allowed. I watched on one visit as he set up grab bars in her bathroom. On the next, he brought her one of those “help me, I’ve fallen” alert necklaces. When it became clear that she shouldn’t be driving anymore, I stood by as he had that difficult conversation with her.  At the time, I never imagined that someday I’d be in a similar position. 

A few weeks after my superhero-belly-crawl-bathroom-incident, my partner Barbara and I were sitting with dear friends. Instead of a lighthearted chat about the latest shows to binge-watch, we found ourselves talking about the brands of dementia medications and adult diapers we were getting for our parents. We were all in the midst of caring (in one way or another) for our aging parents and it was clear that we felt stressed and ill-equipped, and often laughed through the tears. 

I began to notice that every time the subject of parents came up, other friends, work associates, or even strangers in line at the grocery store all added a weary “amen” when the subject of this eldercare journey came up. It started to feel a bit like a zombie movie — everywhere we looked, there was somebody else who had transformed into an adult-child-as-caregiver.

As a documentary filmmaker, I knew I needed to tell this story: Giving others a glimpse into my experience could help them feel less alone. And so, the documentary IT’S NOT A BURDEN: The Humor and Heartache of Raising Elderly Parents was born. 

By the middle of 2015, Barbara (also our cinematographer and editor) outfitted our two vintage Volvos with a tiny camera we’d turn on every time I had my mom in the car. We recorded trips to the doctor’s office or other weekly outings, and captured the sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-heated conversations that made up our complicated relationship.  

Michelle and her mother Elaine filming in the car

My relationship with my dad, on the other hand, had always been very good. But he developed a pretty serious hoarding issue that had concerned my siblings and I for well over a decade. When I raised the issue of the extreme clutter, he agreed (surprisingly) to let us film him and see where it would lead. 

Michelle and her father
Michelle with her father Morris in his home

As we started work on this documentary, I knew it shouldn’t just focus on my story — so I began reaching out to other families willing to share theirs. Over four-and-a-half years of filming, we travelled across the country and were generously welcomed into the homes of families who shared their journeys with us.

Mother and daughter sit on floor
Paula Klein and her mother Tricia Palos, who suffers from dementia

As a group, we bear witness to the universal challenges and remarkable rewards of caring for elderly parents. These truths are the heart of this film, and it’s an honor to be able to share them.

Written by filmmaker/ daughter Michelle Boyaner

Click here to find out where to watch IT’S NOT A BURDEN: The Humor and Heartache of Raising Elderly Parents.