‘This Is Us’ Team on Destigmatizing Aging and Illness: “We Were Telling the Story of Millions of Families”

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This Is Us wrapped its six-year journey last month and in doing so, the NBC family drama tackled what the cast calls the very taboo topic of death and end-of-life planning.

“We were telling the story of millions of families around this country and around the world,” says Mandy Moore in a new sit-down interview about her matriarch on the series, Rebecca Pearson, being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and dying in the penultimate episode of the series. “I think we all understood the weight and the importance of that, and not just focusing on the sadness and the grief and the heartbreak that does come along with a situation like this.”

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Moore was joined by her co-stars Chrissy Metz, who played her onscreen daughter Kate, and John Huertas, who played her second husband and primary caretaker Miguel Rivas, as well as This Is Us executive producer KJ Steinberg for a conversation with Seth and Lauren Rogen — co-founders of HFC, an organization that cares and advocates for families impacted by Alzheimer’s disease — and Ai-jen Poo, executive director of Caring Across Generations, for a chat about the impact of the hit TV series. (Full interview below.)

In a previous column for The Hollywood Reporter, Lauren Rogen and Poo praised the Dan Fogelman broadcast drama for its rarely tackled storyline surrounding Alzheimer’s and end-of-life planning after Moore delivered Rebecca’s final season monologue to her family sharing her end-of-life wishes. In the video conversation posted Friday, Rogen and Poo shared more of their personal experiences of being family caregivers — prompting Metz to open up about caring for her own mother, who has aphasia after suffering a stroke, and Huertas and Steinberg to discuss how they, too, have become caregivers for family members.

“Myself, and many people, missed the boat on being able to sit the family down, because the subliminal message is that it’s too shameful to talk about,” said Steinberg. “Look your loved ones in the eye and say what you need to say with your presence of mind, because you might lose that presence of mind and then people will be making decisions for you, and they may not be what you want.”

Moore spoke of the research and planning that went into representing this largely unspoken, yet all-too-common family experience. And Seth Rogen praised creator and writer Fogelman for tackling Alzheimer’s from a creative standpoint, acknowledging the topic is “not easy to digest,” and for being brave enough to put it out in the world in a realistic way that will help to destigmatize the disease in a mainstream forum.

“I can’t imagine how confusing, how isolating, being diagnosed with dementia and cognitive decline, what that must be, and yet, how empowering it must be to then recognize, ‘I have the presence of mind and ability to think about my future, not just for myself but for my family, to eliminate any family politics and messiness that might arise from an impossible situation like this,'” said Moore of the final season focusing on how the Pearson family respects and honors Rebecca’s end-of-life wishes.

Moore said that, while sad for her character, she was also inspired by her and hopes viewers will be as well. When questioning why television, film and other pop culture mediums rarely discuss such conversations and planning around end-of-life care, Metz and Huertas noted that it can be uncomfortable and there’s an apprehension from decision-makers. “They have this idea that the audience will reject us trying to tell that story, instead of actually being drawn into it and being inspired by it,” said Huertas of This Is Us, which remained the top-rated broadcast series through the end of its run.

Steinberg revealed that, at one point, even the writers room wondered if Rebecca dying from Alzheimer’s was too sad.

“We’re already reduced to a tissue-box emotion,” she said of the famously weepy show. “We worked real hard to bring all the colors. But we had tossed around other illnesses. Dan [Fogelman] always knew the end of the series would be Rebecca’s passing. Ultimately, we all agreed that on all of those levels on which it performs for us and opens up storytelling, it was like, ‘Oh God, that’s so sad, but it’s perfect.'”

She continued, “The show is about loss. Yes, it’s about love and it’s about family. But the thesis of the pilot that Dan so brilliantly wrote was this whole family generationally galvanized around loss, and it was sudden loss. You didn’t have time to plan, you didn’t expect it; it was just a very particular kind of family bonding and reaction around that phenomenon … the exact opposite would be something like this disease.”

Along with the video, Caring Across Generations released an information hub for caregivers and their families, including a detailed guide for starting difficult conversations about end-of-life care and resources for respite grant programs, online support groups and virtual workshops.

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