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‘This Is Us’ has created positive change for the Alzheimer’s community, study finds

A new study found that the way "This Is Us" portrayed Alzheimer's disease
/ Source: TODAY

Sophia Paliov felt gutted when one of the main characters in the popular TV series “This Is Us” started to show signs of memory loss. Watching Rebecca Pearson’s mental decline as her Alzheimer’s disease worsened cut deeply because it so closely echoed what Paliov had been through with her mom.

“Knowing how they do their story lines, I knew it was going to be done very realistically, and so with each episode, it just gutted me bit by bit,” said the 50-year-old Irvine, California, resident. “As the episodes progressed, I knew I had to be in the mood to watch it and have a glass of wine and tissues. Because I knew it would just pain me to watch.” 

NBC drama "This Is Us" ran for six seasons, from September 2016 to May 2022, and centered around the Pearson family — parents Rebecca and Jack Pearson, played by Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia, sons Randall and Kevin, played by Sterling K. Brown and Justin Hartley, and daughter Kate, played by Chrissy Metz. The show portrayed the family during several different time frames, from before the kids were born to their lives as adults.

A fan of the show since it began, Paliov said the season and a half that followed Rebecca’s worsening Alzheimer’s “hit very, very hard” because it brought back her experiences with her mother who passed away from the disease in December of 2018. “I was her part time caregiver and she fought that illness since 2011.”

“It was a very good show,” Paliov said. “It was very well written, very realistic. It was on the little things I really feel they nailed it. They progressed her slowly and then showed the disease accelerating. That’s what happened with my mom. That last episode, I went through a box of tissues.”

Paliov wasn’t alone. A new study by a team of University of Pittsburgh researchers found that the show resonated with viewers. The researchers decided to look into the impact of the show because they felt it did a great job educating the public about Alzheimer’s and reducing the stigma associated with the disease.

One reason the TV series stood out to the researchers was that a large part of it was set in their home base, Pittsburgh, said the study’s first author, Beth Hoffman, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health.

But the main purpose of the study was to look at how people responded to the show. “This storyline involved a difficult subject, and it was met really positively by viewers,” Hoffman said. “So the entertainment industry need not shy away from talking about complex health topics, particularly when it’s done in collaboration with health and medical experts.”

Hoffman notes that “This is Us” leaned on the expertise of Hollywood, Health and Society, an organization that provides up-to-date information for storylines involving “health, safety and security," according to its website.

The accuracy of the Alzheimer’s storyline made Dawn Maniglia wish it had played out several years earlier, when her father-in-law was battling Alzheimer’s.

Maniglia first noticed something was wrong with him when he stopped calling her to help with the crossword puzzles they both loved to solve. Her mother-in-law had noticed the same thing. “She said, ‘Tony’s not acting right,’” Maniglia recalled. “'He’s not doing his crossword puzzles.’”

Around the same time, Tony, who had always loved watching horse racing “all of a sudden stopped watching,” Maniglia said.

“It would have helped us as we were going through it to know what to expect so we could sort of prepare for what you can never completely prepare for,” the 55-year-old Brooklyn resident added.

Watching the show even years after her father-in-law died wasn’t easy for the family, especially for Maniglia’s husband. “He had a hard time sitting through it,” she said. “Every episode, there was not a dry eye in our living room.”

The new study used information from a focus group and from a survey of more than 700 people to explore how average viewers reacted to the Alzheimer’s storyline. One of the questions Hoffman and her team were interested in was which of Rebecca’s sons, Randall or Kevin, viewers identified with more. The brothers clashed because Randall wanted their mother to participate in an experimental study to treat her Alzheimer's — which Rebecca declined to do at first and Kevin agreed with her — but she later changed her mind due to Randall's influence, leading to a big fight.

The researchers were surprised by the viewers’ responses. “We thought going in that they would either identify with Randall and his vision of Rebecca going to a clinical trial, or support Kevin’s position of having her remain with the family. But many people identified with both characters.”

That finding wouldn’t have surprised Paliov. “I felt split between the two characters,” she said. “In the beginning, I was very frustrated with the disease. I was mad at it. Then I realized I couldn’t fight it and started going with the flow.”

The participants in the study appreciated how “This Is Us” could educate members of the public who had no experience with Alzheimer’s. One focus group member, a 62-year-old woman, said, “I think it encourages family discussion, and it takes away some of the (stigma) of even saying the word Alzheimer’s.”

The focus group members felt that the portrayal of Kevin and Randall’s disagreement over Rebecca’s care would spark family discussions about care preferences. One, a 48-year-old woman, said “I think it gives an example. ... They had tension because they weren’t all together on how they should proceed.”

Paliov felt like she was a mix of Randall and Kevin: “I fought really hard to keep my mother at home. I promised a long time ago that I would never put her in a home. So I did my best. I had a live-in caregiver and another one during the day to help out. And I would take over from both of them for two full days.”

Paliov had lost her father to cancer. “When he died he was intact,” she said. “This is different. Alzheimer’s slowly robs a person of who they are, and before you know it, they are just a shell and just staring blankly. Watching that is the hardest thing.”

“The day she took her last breath was bitter sweet. Finally, she was out of this misery. And I have to say they showed that with Rebecca’s last episode."