Television storylines may be a powerful tool to promote awareness about Alzheimer disease (AD) and related caregiving, which impacts approximately 9 million adults in the United States, according to study findings published in the Journal of Health Communication.
For the study, researchers used a mixed-methods approach, which included an online survey that was completed by 720 US adult viewers of the This Is Us television series. The study was designed to systematically analyze perceptions of the storyline, including Kevin and Randall Pearson’s plans for their mother, Rebecca, along with its influence on viewer behavioral intent toward planning for aging and discussing these plans with family members.
The second portion of the study included 12 focus group participants, all of whom were also survey respondents, to further investigate these topics. The researchers conducted a total of 4 small focus group discussions with these participants between October 2020 and November 2020. Focus groups were conducted with the use of Zoom videoconference software, with each focus group discussion lasting for approximately
Overall, 54.3% of the survey respondents were aged between 18 and 44 years; 66.5% of participants identified were women. Approximately 80% of the participants identified as White or Caucasian. Among the 12 focus group participants, 75% identified as women, and 83.3% (10 of 12) of them were aged 50 years or older.
Participants who indicated that they had viewed 1 or more episode(s) of This Is Us Season 4 (2019 to 2020) were allowed to complete the survey. Qualtrics Sampling Services were used to recruit the online sample of US adults who comprised the current survey. Qualtrics continued their recruitment until a total of 720 completed surveys that satisfied speeding and accuracy checks were obtained.
Hypothesis 1 was as follows: “Greater identification with the character of Kevin will be associated with stronger support for his plan for Rebecca, and greater identification with the character of Randall will be associated with stronger support for his plan for Rebecca.”
Related to Hypothesis 1 and to the conceptual framework of the analysis, the researchers sought to answer the following research questions:
Research Question 1: What are the viewers’ perceptions of Kevin’s and Randall’s differing plans for Rebecca, and what is the influence of the storyline on viewers’ behavioral intent toward planning for aging?
Research Question 2: How are viewers’ perceptions and storyline influence associated with attitudes toward medical research, personal experience related to AD and caregiving, and sociodemographic characteristics?
Triangulation of survey and focus group results imply that the storyline from This Is Us may motivate viewers of the show to discuss plans for aging with their family, with the impetus linked to a reduction in stigma and to viewing on-screen family tensions associated with senior care.
A limitation of the study is the fact that although the results suggest that the storyline may influence viewers’ behavioral intent toward planning for aging, the researchers did not evaluate the impact of planning for aging on actual health behaviors, nor did it evaluate the long-term influence of planning for one’s own or a loved one’s aging.
Since the time that the study was conducted, This Is Us expanded its storyline to include the depiction of Rebecca’s continued memory decline and eventual death, additional conflict between Kevin and Randall regarding their mother’s care, frustration experienced by Rebecca’s husband and her children about her inconsistent behaviors, and the effect of caregiving on the well-being of the various characters on the show.
Based on findings from their study, investments in collaborative partnerships between public health and the entertainment industry may play a valuable role by positively impacting those affected by AD and its associated caregiving. The researchers concluded with the following: “Future research can explore how to best tailor media messaging to be both educational and entertaining, and how healthcare professionals can best partner with television writers to generate such content.”
Hoffman BL, Sidani JE, Wang Y, Chang J, Burke JG. “It encourages family discussion”: a mixed-methods examination of the This Is Us Alzheimer’s disease & caregiving storyline. J Health Commun. Published online August 31, 2022. doi:10.1080/10810730.2022.2111620