De-stigmatizing Alzheimer's Disease
While Providing Hope and Support For Families
By Angelina Cappiello
Photos By Caroline Greyshock
Leeza Gibbons is an award-winning talk show host working with top news and broadcasting stations for over 30 years. Still, her greatest accomplishment to date may be her advocacy for Alzheimer's Disease, a charitable cause near and dear to her heart.
In honor of her late mother and grandmother, who both developed the disease, Leeza founded the Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation and Leeza Cares Connection, both of which have become a guide in navigating this debilitating disorder that affects millions of families worldwide.
For those diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, timing is critical as families search for answers to try and understand their next steps in caring for their loved one. Leeza's organizations help by providing caregivers the tools and tips they will need throughout their loved one's journey.
Preferred Health Magazine spoke to Leeza Gibbons about Alzheimer's Disease, how it has shaped her life, and what it means to pay it forward.
PHM: Your mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s over 20 years ago. Can you recall when you first heard her diagnosis, your thoughts, her thoughts, and actions that proceeded?
LG: Even though we had witnessed and experienced our Granny (mom's mother) going through the same diagnosis, when it came time to face the reality that our mom might have Alzheimer's, we were in classic denial. I initially thought mom was an alcoholic... (and she was definitely
self-medicating with alcohol) so my plan was to get her into the Betty Ford Center. how I wish that had been the case. Not there's anything easy about alcoholism, but it IS survivable...there is hope. We have not yet had the first survivor of Alzheimer's, but still, there is life and love and you can hold on to yourself, even while letting go of someone you love.
Mom was characteristically positive and wanted to focus on how she might help others.
We told her by "naming and claiming" it, she could help de-stigmatize the experience for others. So, she immediately recorded a public service announcement saying, "My name is Jean Gibbons and I have Alzheimer's" - I have never been more proud!
PHM: I understand your grandmother also had Alzheimer’s. Were you familiar with some of the signs leading up to your mother’s diagnosis?
LG: We tend to protect ourselves from pain, so even though we had seen Granny endure (and died with) the disease, we still lulled ourselves into thinking mom was depressed or that she was drinking too much.
In addition to repeating the same stories, which I found charming and endearing, Granny did things like put biscuits in the dresser drawer instead of the oven. She ultimately forgot who we were and when mom and I visited her, I saw my mother make playlists of her favorite music and rub her hands with her favorite lotion, even while asking me to promise to not visit her if she ever got the disease. I could never promise her that. "I won't know you're there," she'd say. "Yes, but I'll know I'm there and maybe that's what I need." In the end, it happened just like that and I did need to be with her even if she didn't know I was there. A heart never forgets.
PHM: Why is the role of the caretaker so important to discuss and understand through times like these?
LG: First, it's important to know how likely it is that you may be a caregiver. Even if it seems unfathomable now, 1 in 4 women will be caregivers, and yet we don't have a culture that prepares us or values the effort. Husbands, wives, sons, and daughters have to step up and become the healthcare system for their loved ones who are diagnosed with a chronic illness or disease, yet no one is ready. Caregivers can suffer from compassion fatigue that is so great it can take ten years off their lives. Many times, they end up dying before their diagnosed loved one. When I learned about that I knew I had to do something to help. We can't yet cure devastating diseases like Alzheimer's, but we can sure make it better for those who serve in the invisible army that cares.
PHM: You started The Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation in 2002 as a special promise to your mother, Jean. What is the mission of your non-profit organization?
LG: It's simple. We created what we wished we had. A place to be seen, heard, and understood. Until you're faced with the prospect of saying goodbye over and over; of anticipatory grieving, you can't really know what it's like. You can't know what it's like to reach the end of your rope and be unsure about hanging on. You can't know how resentful you will become while caring for the person you love most. That's where we come in....to help you hold onto yourself even while letting go of someone you love. We offer support, tips, and strategies for being confident and competent in your role as a caregiver. A sense of community is everything.
PHM: We understand your mother Jean passed away shortly after, in 2008. Can you tell us a little bit about your mom and what she would want people to know about the woman she was?
LG: Mom was spirited and funny; prone to laughing and sassiness. She believed in gypsies and shooting stars and was also sometimes depressed. She wanted what we all want- to know that we matter. My mom wanted to make a difference. It's why, when I asked her what I could do to make things better, she said simply, "Tell the story and make it count." The fact that she didn't shy away from her reality gave me a lot of confidence in plowing ahead with creating Leeza's Care Connection. It helped me cope, and ultimately healed me, by giving me a sense of purpose; giving me my own ability to make a difference.
PHM: The Leeza's Care Connection is a signature program of the Leeza Gibbon's Memory Foundation. What does this program offer to caretakers?
LG: We create a community of support for those who care. We are an oasis in the desert of grief, pain, and the seemingly endless demands of caregiving. We offer tips, strategies, and a way forward when all you really think you can do is pull the cover over your head. It's a place to begin to get an answer to the question "Now What"?
Our programs focus on education, empowerment, and energy. This is a marathon, and to make it through, you have to get the grief and pain out of your body. We do that through all kinds of programs ranging from art therapy to dance movement and laughter yoga. We have support groups and drum circles and sing-alongs, but we also have learning labs and virtual experiences to give caregivers nuts and bolts techniques that work.
PHM: In 2016, you were the winner of the tv show, Celebrity Apprentice, and used your earnings from that show to open Leeza’s Care Connection in your hometown, Columbia, SC. Why was that important to you?
LG: Columbia is the place I grew my dreams and my values. It's where my mother lived and loved.
My friends and neighbors looked after me and I felt safe and seen. My father and brother and sister still live near where we grew up. It was important to me that I create a place for their love and energy as well as represent and honor my mother. Our center there had become our flagship location and a model for offering care and support for family caregivers as well as respite. It's truly my happy place and a source of great pride!
PHM: You are a mother to three wonderful children, a wife, and a dog mommy. You have had a wonderful career as a best-selling author, Emmy Award-winning talk show host, a reporter for television news and radio, an advocate for Alzheimer’s Disease, and are currently the host of The Rose Parade. What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment to date?
LG: I have loved every stage of my life and career and am beyond blessed. The experiences and opportunities I have had are the stuff dreams are made of, but I'm most proud of learning, growing, and enduring. I have tried hard. I have cared passionately.
I have shown up and done my best. That's truly everything.
PHM: For those families just beginning their journey with Alzheimer’s disease, what do you want them to know about balancing their lives as a caretaker?
LG: There is no balance really, and to seek it will likely make you feel like an epic failure. The best you can do is to vow not to attempt the journey alone. One of our mantras at Leeza's Care Connection is "Breathe, Believe, Receive."
Breathe in the hope and faith that you will get through it. Know that you are enough. Let your breath calm your anxiety.
Believe in a greater power, the strength of community, and the resilience of the human spirit.
Receive the gifts offered by others who want to help. Learn to ask for what you need and open up when it is provided.
PHM: A new book, a talk show, acting. What’s next for Leeza Gibbons?
LG: I'm eager to create a nationwide network for our HUGS program. It stands for Helping U Grow Strong,
and I created it out of my experience over the past 20 years with caregivers. It's so important that you find someone who gets it; someone who knows what you're going through, so I developed a peer-to-peer network of mentors who can offer to bear witness to your journey and help you through it. Thanks to a grant from Public Health AmeriCorps, we can now offer this program in multiple states. Feeling overwhelmed, resentful, stressed, and depressed is common, but having someone to share the load is lifesaving. Sometimes, we all need a HUG!