Oscar Contender "Nebraska" Offers Many Lessons for Caregivers

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Sometimes it’s good to look outside of your own experiences to learn about the aging process and caregiving. That’s why I often like to share movies that provide a glimpse into what many caregivers and families are going through (or are fixing to go through).


    Last night, I watched one of those movies, Nebraska. This movie will be up for an Oscar in several categories this Sunday, including Best Motion Picture, Achievement in Directing (Alexander Payne), Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Bruce Dern), Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (June Squibb), Original Screenplay and Achievement in Cinematography. All these nominations are well-deserved.

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    The movie’s plot revolves around Dern’s character, Woody, who is obsessed with collecting the $1 million he believes he has won. His adult son, David, decides to placate Woody and agrees to drive him from their home in Montana to Nebraska in order to pick up the prize.


    So why is this movie one that caregivers should watch? I’d suggest the following four reasons:


    Recognizing Cognitive Impairment


    You’re not told at the start of the movie that Woody might be suffering cognitive impairment. In fact, at the start of the movie, you think he’s just being cantankerous. But throughout the early part of the movie, you do see Woody’s loss of judgment. The first clue is the letter talking about the $1 million. Woody thinks the letter indicates that he has definitely won $1 million when in reality it’s a solicitation letter from a magazine subscription service. The other huge clue is that Woody thinks he can walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska during what is obviously a cold part of the year to retrieve the prize. It’s not until later in the movie when Woody has to go to the emergency room that you actually hear the word “memory loss” come from a health care professional.


    Lesson Learned: If an elder is starting to seem confused or is making really strange decisions, you need to have them see a doctor. There could be a health reason for what they are doing (although it may not be due to dementia).


    Having the Guts to Step In


    David ends up stepping in and agreeing to drive Woody to Nebraska, even though the family is discussing putting Woody into a retirement home. By doing so, David – who is the youngest son – starts to play a key role in making decisions related to Woody’s condition. In fact, it seemed to me that David is the first family member to really take some level of ownership in trying to understand what’s going on with his father. In comparison, Woody’s wife, Kate, and David’s older brother are focused more on complaining about the situation or on their own issues.


    Lesson Learned: It’s really easy to say “We need to do this” or “This needs to happen.” At some point, someone is going to need to step in and take action and responsibility.


    Dealing with Pesky Relatives and Friends


    On the way to Lincoln, David and Woody stop in Woody’s hometown to visit family and friends that Woody has known for most of his life. Kate eventually joins them. Soon, word gets out that Woody believes he has won $1 million. A former business associate along with Woody’s family members and friends start clamoring to get their share, stating that Woody had borrowed money from them (even though they didn’t have any way to prove they were owed money). Finally, Kate and David have to step in and take appropriate – and sometimes drastic steps – to protect Woody’s integrity.


  • Lesson Learned: Family members, friends and business colleagues may not understand what’s going on in relation to a loved one’s mental status. Caregivers may have to step in and, in doing so, need to keep the loved one’s best interests at heart.

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    Spending Quality Time with Elders Before They’re Gone


    I think one of the most touching parts of this movie is that David chooses to spend quality time with his father. I am sure that David realizes that Woody is failing so this becomes the last road trip for the two and a major bonding experience. Plus, because they stop for an extended period in Woody’s hometown, David meets people who knew his father when he was younger (including Woody’s former girlfriend). In doing so, he learns some history about his father that he never knew.


    Lesson Learned: It’s easy to think that a loved one is going to be there forever. However, if you watch closely, you’ll see signs of their physical and mental decline. Therefore, it’s important to spend quality time with an elder before you lose them permanently, whether that’s mentally due to dementia or physically through death.

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    Nebraska. (2013).

Published On: February 27, 2014