Leeza Gibbons is a 60-year-old Emmy®-winning host and New York Times best-selling author, but her roles as an entrepreneur, mother, wife and caregiver are where she’s made her greatest contributions in life. Gibbons’ agility and constant motivation to keep pushing forward helped her conquer the challenges she faced after becoming a caregiver for her mother, who battled Alzheimer’s for nine years. The situation ultimately led her to advocate for those affected by the disease as a tribute and lasting legacy to her mom’s life.
A Mother’s Care
Gibbons grew up in Hartsville, a small town in South Carolina, along with her sister and brother who loved spending time outside. As a young girl, life for Gibbons consisted of simple southern charm and values: cleaning your plate and respecting your parents.
“When I grew up, it was: yes ma’am, no sir, mind your manners and do your chores,” recalls Gibbons. “Everyone looked out for each other. I thought it was perfect then. It feels even more perfect now.”
From a young age, Gibbons was a take-charge kind of girl and knew she wanted to be a storyteller. She aspired to travel around the world filming documentaries, while her mother never failed to help her discover her strengths.
“I have my mother to thank for that,” Gibbons says of her talent for telling stories. “When I couldn’t figure out what to perform at the school talent show in the sixth grade, my mother suggested that I deliver a well-told story. Mom was great like that — always helping me find the best parts of myself.”
A New Normal
Gibbons’ mother, Jean, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 62. Even though her grandmother also suffered from the debilitating neurological disorder, it was extremely hard for Gibbons to reconcile that the disease was now hitting even closer.
“All I wanted to do initially was protect my mother and spare her the pain and confusion that I knew was coming,” Gibbons says. “This disease doesn’t wait for you to get your head and your heart ready, though. It doesn’t allow you to adjust to the anxiety and depression, the frustration and feelings of emptiness that creep into your new, unwelcome world. It just abruptly breaks into your life.”
Although Gibbons did not want to face the fact that her mother — a strong, active and sharp woman — was fading before her eyes, she took it upon herself to learn all she could about Alzheimer’s.
“I went into therapy,” Gibbons says. “I read everything I could get my hands on, and then I got educated. I went to seminars and went through certification programs. I watched DVDs and downloads from experts and authorities. All of it helped, but nothing helped more than talking with real caregivers who had walked the path before me.”
Becoming the primary caregiver for her mother meant that Gibbons had to come to terms with living an unbalanced life. Her experience with her mother taught Gibbons that trying to do things perfectly, crossing all the t’s and dotting all the i’s, makes for a stressful life.
“Now I don’t believe in balance,” she says. “I think balance is bogus! When I was caring for Mom, I hadn’t yet come to that conclusion. I finally just had to realize that all I could do was my best, but I know my job suffered a lot. Even when I was at work, I couldn’t focus and had bouts of anger or depression.”
It was this experience that led Gibbons to become entrenched in the world of caregiving education and advocacy.
She eventually established free community support centers for family caregivers trying to answer the question “now what?” when someone they love gets diagnosed with a chronic illness or disease. This haven offers an outlet for information and help, something Gibbons says is second nature to her.
“They always say that you teach what you need to learn,” she shares. “For me, helping other families understand how to navigate the realities and challenges of aging parents came naturally. It was my own adjustment to my ‘new normal’ that gave me the inspiration.”
Gibbons says the simple thing for families to do when dealing with Alzheimer’s is to
She believes that connecting to your faith and to others who have walked the path before you can be enormously comforting for those going through the challenge of being a caregiver.
Taking Care of Yourself
Caring for an aging parent can take a toll on those affected by the circumstances. Oftentimes the health of the caregiver suffers under the weight of the stress and pressure to provide the best care possible.
“We have to identify and then take time for our sanity sanctuaries (happy places) in life,” Gibbons explains. “It’s imperative that we nourish ourselves because it’s a stressing, depressing, depleting marathon.”
Gibbons imparts that other caregivers need to “stop achieving and start receiving” to relieve some of the stress and anxiety associated with taking care of an aging loved one. She advises considering ways to unload some of the responsibility of caregiving.
“Let others help you,” she advises. “Take advantage of the technology that’s out there. For example, we got my dad a medical alert device. After Mom died, he’s been living alone, and I was worried. That’s a lot of peace of mind!”
Becoming a caregiver required Gibbons to be very candid with her children about issues such as death. She realizes that openness helps tremendously when going through any stressful, life-changing time.
“They are conversant about it, and the topic [of death] is not stigmatized in our home,” Gibbons says. “I hope I have modeled patience and empathy for them and given them a sense of urgency for living your life out loud and on purpose.”
Juggling caregiver responsibilities with her personal needs, Gibbons developed different ways to manage her stress and health, incorporating activities such as meditation, Pilates and yoga, taking walks, eating healthy, and taking detox baths with Epsom salt and lavender.
Gibbons says the simple thing for families to do when dealing with Alzheimer’s is to breathe, believe and receive. She believes that connecting to your faith and to others who have walked the path before you can be enormously comforting for those going through the challenge of being a caregiver.
Because Gibbons had promised her mother that she would tell her story “and make it count,” she established the Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation in 2002.
“It made me feel empowered,” Gibbons says. “Grateful. Humbled to be of service to a community of people who are the strongest, yet most misunderstood, I’ve ever met.”
She believes that opening its signature program, Leeza’s Care Connection support centers, was in her destiny. Her father has served as a role model for her throughout this journey and is a frequent volunteer at the center.
“Having my dad offering his wisdom and humor means everything to me,” Gibbons shares. “He has always been such an optimistic role model. I believe in trying hard and caring more, and this means I got a shot to do both.”
While she’s achieved a lot through her professional career, it’s her ability to offer education and resources for those in need that gives her a measure of success.
“I feel successful whenever I am able to offer my gifts and talents with a healthy mind, body and spirit, through love and gratitude,” Gibbons says. “If I feel good about what I’m doing and I’m emotionally and physically strong, that’s big-time success! My optics on my success are clearer than ever before, allowing me to drink it up; gratitude is the foundation of success. My husband and I must say it half dozen times a day: ‘We have the best life.’ Amen to that.”
Jodi Marsh is the executive editor for Healthy Living Made Simple.