In her role as a judge on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, Carrie Ann Inaba is used to making tough decisions. Each week, she and fellow judges Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli rate the performances of celebrity dancers, calls that can either make or break the stars’ quest for the coveted mirror ball trophy. But those decisions are nothing compared to the judgment calls Carrie Ann, 44, has been faced with in real life, as a caregiver to both her mother and father through their journeys with cancer. As Dancing with the Stars season 15 prepares to premiere on September 24 with top finishers from previous seasons like Olympic speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, actress Kirstie Alley and former NFL great Emmitt Smith, we asked Carrie Ann to share her secrets for resiliency, how she juggled caregiving with her busy career, and her thoughts about the competition ahead.
Spry: Both of your parents recently battled cancer. How are they doing now, and what did you learn from the experience?
Carrie Ann: My mom had breast cancer and my dad had tongue cancer, and fortunately they are both doing well. One of the biggest things I learned as a caregiver is the importance of taking time for yourself; so many times adult children sacrifice their own health when taking care of their parents. I wanted to be there as much as I could, but I also learned the importance of balance. It’s hard to ask for help, but I learned to accept my friends’ offers of assistance, and to practice self-care by taking a yoga class or even staying home and reading a good book.
Spry: What did you find to be the most difficult aspect of caregiving?
Carrie Ann: I’m a real type-A person and I like to know all the facts and come up with solutions. With my dad, I learned that it was his health journey and it was important for him and his sense of independence to make his own health decisions. I could be there to offer support, but it was his journey and his life, and I needed to step back and respect the choices he was making even if I didn’t agree with him.
Spry: Is there anything you would do differently?
Carrie Ann: I would not take things personally. When my dad was very ill, he said some things that hurt, yet later he didn’t even remember saying them. When people are in a state of discomfort, they can say and do things they don’t mean. You can’t take it personally because it isn’t about you, it’s about them releasing negativity. If you let hurt feelings stand in the way of your relationship, you’re wasting precious time with your loved ones.
Spry: What advice would you have for other caregivers?
Carrie Ann: It was important to talk about topics outside of my parents’ illnesses. Rather than spending our time together talking about medical treatments or medications, I tried to also talk about the positives, and to focus on living life rather than illness. Often, I would take several of my animals over when I visited my dad, and he just loved it. They helped him take his mind off of everything.
Spry: Animal rescue seems to be a cause close to your heart and your recent Internet show, Crib Cat, helped a lot of homeless cats find forever homes. What’s next for you?
Carrie Ann: I have six cats and two dogs of my own, and have decided to start a foundation called For Those Without Voices, to help other dogs and cats find homes, and to promote awareness and raise money for many of the animal welfare organizations, including Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, that are working so hard to find these animals permanent homes.
Spry: Your fiancé, Jesse, has a 14-year-old daughter, Kristen. What advice do you have for other women who may be entering into a new relationship in midlife?
Carrie Ann: Jesse and I met on the website eHarmony. We corresponded for a long time before we met in person and Jesse only knew my first name, not my profession or what I looked like, so we really got to know each other well. We continue to have a very open and honest relationship and I feel very lucky to have him in my life. I call Kristen my “faux daughter.” I know I’m not her mom, and I would never try to replace her. We call each other “Panchita,” which loosely means “buddy” in Spanish. I didn’t want to be called her stepmom or Carrie Ann, so Panchita is perfect
Spry: There will be many familiar faces on this all-star Dancing with the Stars season. What do you think fans can expect?
Carrie Ann: I think this is going to be a very competitive season. We’re seeing several winners and many fan favorites return and since this is their second time, I’m sure they have all formulated strategies and are prepared to give their best dance performances. DWTS is a very emotionally and physically challenging show, and I admire all of these stars for returning a second time to give it their all.