Mental Health of Caregivers Is Subject of Powerful Documentary 

Richard Lui, a journalist and news anchor for MSNBC and NBC News, sat down with Chip Carter recently to talk about his relationship with his late mother, former first lady Rosalynn Carter. Chip talked about his parents and their inspirational relationship and discussed his role as a long-distance caregiver for his mother, who had Alzheimer’s, making a six-hour trip to help her multiple times a week. He reminisced about how when he would walk in, he wondered whether his mother even remembered him. She often answered that question during their initial hug, when she’d look at him, and say his name, up until the end. You can watch the heartwarming news story here. 

Besides being a journalist who covers stories such as the one about the Carter family, Richard Lui fully understands firsthand what it is like to care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s. His own father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis led him to direct the film Unconditional: When Minds Hurt, Love Heals. The film takes a powerful look at how caregiving impacts mental health. In fact, Lui and his family are one of three subjects in the film.  

Lui spent seven years working on the documentary to explore the issue of mental health and caregiving, including his own mental health as a caregiver for his father and then his mother. He explains how the project and his role as a caregiver took a tremendous personal toll on his life but describes how it was so worthwhile in the end. According to Lui, “(f)irst of all, I have given up a lot of my health, physically and mentally. I stopped exercising for three years. I pushed myself too much, more than I ever have, and I’ve pushed myself a lot in the past. This was the most.” But on a positive note, Lui describes the payoff after the film was widely released, as “profound.” 

Lui’s film takes a close look at how caregiving affects the mental health of three families:  

  • His own family in San Francisco, including Richard and his siblings, as his father’s dementia progresses and his mother begins facing some health challenges of her own. 
  • The Bushatz family, of Palmer, Alaska, dealing with father Luke living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his role in the war on Afghanistan in 2009 and the effects of traumatic brain injury.  
  • The Hendricks Thomas family, a local family in Alexandria, Virginia, who were coping with mom Kate’s cancer diagnosis and treatments. 

Richard Lui Opens Up About His Own Caregiving Experiences 

Every week, Richard Lui traveled coast-to-coast, from New York City to San Francisco, to care for his dad, Stephen, who passed away from Alzheimer’s in December 2021. In the documentary, Richard reflected on how caregiving made his family stronger. He captured precious moments between his parents, including a moment where his mom played the violin for his dad while he listened from his hospital bed. “They were never lovey-dovey before his disease,” Richard reflects. “To see the way my mom took care of him, it is almost as if she learned how to fall in love with him again. I don’t think she would have found that out without going on this journey, and in which she has given so much of herself. As difficult as everything has been, our family shared the exhaustion, the pain, and the rewards together.”

Today, Richard regularly travels back to San Francisco to care for his mom, who was recently diagnosed with vascular dementia. When he thinks about his dad, Richard knows that “his soul would say that this was good for the rest of his family, teaching them all lessons about how to come together to battle Alzheimer’s and dementia as a tight-knit team. It was tough, but we all got better, somehow.” 

The Bushatz Family Deals with Luke’s PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries 

In another situation from the film, Luke Bushatz sustained multiple traumatic brain injuries and PTSD from his time in the military. His wife, Amy, knew all about traumatic brain injury, as she herself was in the military. However, according to Amy, “it really took a long time for me to understand that I was actually living that journey.”  

When their family moved to Kentucky after Luke came home from Afghanistan, they didn’t understand the level of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury he was experiencing and what it would mean for them as a family moving forward.  Luke started to lean on substance abuse rather than getting the help he desperately needed. His few attempts to get care in his new unit at Fort Campbell were unsuccessful. At their breaking point one night, the family decided that Luke would leave active duty so that he could focus on his mental health and get the help he needed.  

The Bushatz family moved to Alaska in 2016 to begin a life of healing. That meant something different for each of them. For Luke, it meant frequent VA appointments, a lot of time spent outdoors, and helping other veterans. Amy and their kids prioritized their own health, put boundaries into place, and created space to talk about the challenges the family was facing. They also let others in to help. Organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project, with which the Farr Law Firm is proudly affiliated, and Soldiers’ Angels made an immeasurable difference in their healing process. 

“Our story isn’t just our story; it’s a lot of people’s stories,” Amy said. “I hope that the people who see this film, if they are experiencing the things that we have experienced, simply know that they are not alone and there is hope.”  

The Bushatz family continues to be dedicated to the veteran community and advocates for what Amy calls “post-traumatic growth.”  

The Hendricks Thomas Family Deals with Stage 4 Breast Cancer 

In January 2018, Marine Corps veteran Kate Hendricks Thomas got a mammogram. At 38 years old, she felt healthy, but her nurse practitioner recommended she be examined because of her service in Iraq. She had stage 4 breast cancer. And not just one type, but three. 

After her diagnosis, Hendricks Thomas started noticing how disturbingly prevalent cancer was among other female veterans. She ran into the only other woman from her unit in Iraq, and it turned out she had the exact same type of cancer Hendricks Thomas did.  

Hendricks Thomas believed her cancer was caused by burn pit exposure during a 2005 deployment to Iraq. She went back and forth with the VA for years, but the department denied her benefits claim and all appeals until July of 2021, more than three years into the five years doctors estimated she would live. 

She started planning for a shorter future and made sure every minute counted, even when her friends and family urged her to slow down and rest. In February 2020, Hendricks Thomas co-wrote the book “Stopping Military Suicides: Veteran Voices to Help Prevent Deaths.” She continued teaching for George Mason University’s Department of Global and Community Health as long as she could, and she gave frequent in-person and virtual talks on cancer, research, issues faced by women in the military, and more. 

In March, the US Senate unanimously approved the Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas Supporting Expanded Review for Veterans in Combat Environments (SERVICE) Act, which would require the VA to provide mammograms for all women who served in areas known to be associated with burn pits and other toxic substances. 

Hendricks Thomas died peacefully, surrounded by her husband, brother, and parents. Unconditional talks all about Thomas, her mental health, and her family’s roles as her caregivers and her biggest support system. The documentary explores Hendricks Thomas’ positive upbeat attitude and how she was never one to focus on the negative. After yoga and tea with a friend, she said in the film, “I chose to have a good day today. So I did.” 

“Unconditional” Truly Raised Awareness about Caregiving and Mental Health 

When Richard Lui was interviewed during the making of “Unconditional,” he said, “(b)ringing the three families together is a journey to figure out – and it’s strange to say this here – what I’m going through and what I don’t know. So as Kate and Luke’s families sat with me, I found myself asking questions not only as a journalist, but also to learn how to help myself.” 

Besides raising awareness and teaching and learning lessons about mental health and caregiving, the film also makes an important point about the mental health of male caregivers, in particular. The point that Lui wanted to bring to light is that many don’t realize that men currently make up 45 percent of all caregivers. According to Lui, “(m)en also need the same support. Perhaps because they don’t raise their hands, they’re even more isolated.” To read more about male caregivers, please see my article, “More Men are Becoming Caregivers for Loved Ones with Dementia.”  

After its release in May 2023 at several AMC theaters nationwide, the film aired on MSNBC and then was available to stream on PBS for a short time. First Lady Jill Biden hosted a screening of the film at the White House as part of Mental Health Awareness Month in 2023. The film is now available on Amazon Prime Video.   

Are You a Family Caregiver? 

If you are a caregiver for a loved one, it is wise to plan in advance for yourself and your loved one, especially with the catastrophic costs of long-term care. At the Farr Law Firm, we assist our clients with Life Care Planning and Medicaid Asset Protection, the process of protecting your assets from having to be completely spent down paying privately for long-term care, whether at home, in an assisted living facility, or in a nursing home. We help our clients ensure that their loved ones get the best possible care and maintain the highest possible quality of life. Please call us whenever you are ready to make an appointment: 

Elder Care Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Elder Care Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Elder Care Rockville: 301-519-8041
Elder Care DC: 202-587-2797 

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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