Leeza Gibbons may have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a raft of Emmy nominations, A current work resume that boasts of two TV co-hosting gigs (on America Now and My Generation) and a new book under her belt (Take 2). But of all her ventures, Leeza is most passionate about her work with The Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation and its signature program, Leeza’s Place. Leeza’s experience of caring for her mother, Jean, who died of Alzheimer’s in 2008, inspired her to play a role in providing resources and support for caregivers, particularly those dealing with Alzheimer’s. “Caring for someone with memory loss is one of the most depleting forms of caregiving,” says the 56-year-old mother of three. “But caregiving in general—it’s the thing that we don’t really have language for. Nobody really prepares for it, and it’s the ultimate sure thing.” We spoke with Leeza about the challenges—and rewards—of caregiving, how she remembers her mom on Mother’s Day, and continuing to pursue your dreams, no matter what your age.
Spry: What should be a family caregiver’s first step when they find themselves in that role?
Leeza: There is no substitution for the advice and emotional embrace that comes from people who have been through it. That’s why I love my work with Alzheimersdisease.com. Recently we posted words of wisdom from caregivers, and I heard from so many how helpful it was to learn from others who had walked the same path. My family did an interview we put on the site, too. We wanted to share what we had learned and what we wished we had known when Mom was disappearing behind the veil of Alzheimer’s disease. There’s just nothing like knowing you’re not alone.
Spry: How did you plan for your mother’s care? Did you have the same challenges faced by many caregivers?
Leeza: I was one of the lucky ones—my mom communicated her wishes. She saw her mother die of Alzheimer’s disease, and from the time I was a little girl, my mom talked about how she wanted to be taken care of. That was incredibly courageous, and saved us a lot of bickering as a family. Trust me, we were still in denial, but it got us to our own moment of truth more quickly.
Spry: What’s your advice for people whose loved ones resist conversations about their care?
Leeza: Parents are used to nurturing and protecting, and they don’t want to ever be a burden. It’s a dignity issue, and as children, we have to be sensitive to that. That’s why conversations need to happen when you’re not in the middle of a health crisis. But when you’re already in crisis, have someone else be the bad guy. There are so many non-profits and health agencies and online support groups where somebody anonymous can be an intervening force, so nobody in your family has to wear that title.
Spry: How did you deal with burnout when you were caring for your mother?
Leeza: At that time, I was hosting the television show Extra. I would get off the air and head out the studio door, and walk and walk, recording whatever was on my mind on a digital recorder. Some days I would yell and scream and cry, and some days I would ask questions. It was like a pressure valve release. I felt very isolated, I didn’t want people to think I couldn’t handle my life, and I didn’t want people to see me as being weak. We forget that showing our vulnerability is strength, it’s not weakness. And when we ask for help, that’s a sign that we’re aware.
Spry: In your new book, Take 2, you advise readers to “test drive” their dreams. What do you mean by that?
Leeza: Sometimes we “fall in love” with a former version of ourselves, and we don’t take inventory of where we are now. You may be singing off an old song sheet, not realizing that the music to your life has changed. If you’ve always wanted to be a writer, for example, but you haven’t written anything for over a dozen years, test drive that dream—take it for a spin around the track and make sure it still fits. We get seduced by dreaming and wishing and hoping, but it’s only in the actual trying that we get to know ourselves. So I say buckle up and put yourself in the driver’s seat or else you can’t whine and complain when you don’t get to where you want to go.
Spry: How can caregivers move forward and pursue their dreams despite the demands they face?
Leeza: Owning your new reality is step number one: You have to banish the blame, drop the dread and claim victory over victimization. Now, none of that is easy, but when caregivers can reclaim the top spot in their lives, many things will start to make sense again. It seems counter-intuitive, I know. But caring is depleting, and when your well is empty, you can’t cope with the moment in front of you, much less generate something new.
Spry: Did you ever feel guilty taking time for yourself when you were caring for your mom?
Leeza: Every caregiver feels guilt—and if you don’t, you’ll find a way to feel guilty about that! I came to realize it was usually masquerading as something else—exhaustion or sadness, in my case. When I took better care of myself, I rarely felt the guilt. As you reclaim your life, others might not “get it.” If those around you are accustomed to seeing you always do everything for everyone else and never take time for yourself, they may judge. Let them. You have changed the playing field and taken on a new position. They’ll get used to it, and as you respect yourself more, they will begin to respect you more too.
Spry: How do you remember your mom on Mother’s Day?
Leeza: I plant something with my kids that I know will last when we are gone—usually a magnolia tree because we called Mom our “steel magnolia.” I’m big on rituals. I think there’s something wonderful about the process of doing the same thing year after year that allows the memories to embed deeply into our soulprints where they can nourish and provide a compass when we feel lost. My mother and I were born on the same day, March 26, so I have my own private moments and ways that I connect with her on that day, but I still feel very close to my mom.