Exploring Caregiver Burnout

One of the things that I’m really passionate about, as evidenced by my bio, is disability representation in entertainment media. In college, I wanted to become a screenwriter and watched a lot of TV. While we still have a long way to go, the past few years have been a boon for disabled actors in entertainment media.

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is an hour-long ensemble dramedy airing on NBC that has gone under the radar in terms of representation, because disability is not the focus of the show. Having said that, a recent episode of the show provides a very honest portrayal of caregiver burnout.

Caution: Minor spoilers for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist season 1, episode 1. Major spoilers for episode 3.

Zoey Clarke is a developer living in California who can hear people’s innermost feelings in song, following an accident involving a music playlist, an MRI machine, and an earthquake (think Crazy Ex-Girlfriend).For example, immediately following the incident, a chorus of tired office workers perform a stirring rendition of “Help” by The Beatles with choreography. Zoey’s abilities now allow her to communicate with her nonverbal father who has progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). Having no knowledge of this condition before this show, cursory research indicates that it is portrayed fairly well with the most common symptoms serving as a baseline for the father’s struggles.

Episode three begins with the Clarke family huddled around a laptop as the dad, Mitch, begins to use the communication program that Zoey developed for the first time. To everyone’s surprise, especially wife and primary caregiver Maggie, Mitch asks for lemonade. Maggie is momentarily frustrated because she was expecting Mitch to say something more meaningful. Her feelings are stoked even further when some friends come over for an unexpected visit, which is when Zoey hears her mother’s heart song, “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” by Al Green.

Later, at the grocery store, Maggie reaches her breaking point as she gets arrested for attempting to fight a group of college girls who have bought out the store’s entire stock of lemonade for a Beyoncé- themed party. In response, Zoey and brother, Josh, agree to create a caregiving schedule to which Maggie agrees following Mitch’s reassurance.

What really enhanced the experience for me was the dialogue, particularly in the grocery store. Maggie says, “I failed again. I feel like I’m balancing a million plates, but your father asks me for the one thing I can’t provide.”

I’m not a caregiver, but I have heard a similar analogy used by many who have recently transitioned into caregiving, especially in the SCI community. In the timeline of the show, Mitch’s PSP progressed to the need for a caregiver very recently, which meant that Maggie’s role is fresh as well. The act of balancing “a million things” is rarely easy. Furthermore, the kids expanded on this idea with lines like, “I guess we were so concerned about dad, that we didn’t think about how this was affecting mom.” Or, “she was always the strong one. We can go back to our homes, but this is her everyday life.”

This idea of caring for caregivers is not uncommon and is most often addressed by sharing responsibility and demonstrating selfcare. Even Maggie herself was resistant at first, exclaiming, “I can take care of MY husband!” It wasn’t until the entire family rallied around her, that she relented. Episodes like this give me hope for all of the fun things that the showhas planned for the rest of the season.

I have a certain distaste for inspirational quotes and mantras, but there is a popular one that I think is applicable here. “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

Now, the second part of this quote is usually, “Take care of yourself first,” but sometimes that isn’t an option, especially as a caregiver. Instead, I would say, “Know when to ask for help.” Take it from someone who has been on the receiving end of care for his entire life. Caregivers, especially family members, are special individuals who have been given unique hearts of service and a large amount of compassion, but they are still people. If possible, remind them that they are loved and efforts are appreciated as often as you can.

About Tim Shin: Tim lives in River Vale, NJ, and works as a communications manager for AbleThrive, a nonprofit organization. He enjoys food, fashion, music and television. Click here to learn more about Tim.