The essence of fame is recognition; whether at a restaurant or a park or the grocery store, when you’re famous, people know who you are. But what happens when you’re a celebrity and one day, and as you’re helping your mother make her bed, she looks at you blankly and says, “You’re a really nice lady. Do I know you?”
Such is the power and devastation of Alzheimer’s disease—capable of rendering one of the most recognizable people on television a complete stranger to her own mom. The celebrity in this case is Emmy Award-winner Leeza Gibbons; the Alzheimer’s victim, her mother Jean. Unfortunately, this scenario, which played out in Jean’s bedroom, has been reenacted in some shape or form by the loved ones of the five million people suffering from this disease in the United States.
The Evolution of a Health Advocate
“My mom was relatively young when she started showing signs of the disease,” Gibbons says. “She was in her late fifties. In the beginning, it’s very common to have forgetfulness and behavioral issues with hygiene and things like that. My mom would repeat herself quite often and she knew things were getting worse. I would have to go through her wardrobe to put together easy outfits for her to wear because she was losing the ability to plan.”
At first, Gibbons and her family didn’t want to face the fact that the matriarch of their family, a strong, vivacious, sharp woman, was fading before their eyes. Even though Gibbons’ grandmother died of Alzheimer’s, it was extremely hard for her to reconcile that the disease was now ravaging her own mother.
“I remember going to visit my grandmother, who wouldn’t recognize us, and my mom would say, ‘if this ever happens to me, I don’t want you to visit me. I won’t know you and I want you to live your life’,” Gibbons says. “At the time, I thought, number one, there’s no way it’s going to happen to her, and number two, there’s no way I wouldn’t see her.”
By the time Jean Gibbons was 62, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the slow, torturous march of the disease had begun. Ten years later, she had mentally disappeared, unable to recognize anyone in her family.
“My mom had given us strict orders when she was healthy that she didn’t want to live with us if she couldn’t call us by our names,” Gibbons explains. “But during the progression of the disease, my family members and I had to come together to figure out what to do.”
Personally, Gibbons admits to spending the first year or so of her mom’s diagnosis on a self-imposed wild goose chase to find the cure. She was a journalist, after all, and she felt that if she could just travel to the right places and speak to the right people she could find a way to stop the advancement of the disease. This time and energy she spent trying to find answers was in response to the feeling that all family members of Alzheimer’s victims face: utter helplessness.
“For the first few years, I couldn’t bear the feeling of being helpless,” she says. “It felt so uncomfortable. Looking back, I realize now that you just have to capitalize on all the time that your loved one is still capable of being themselves. There’s so much blame and shame and feelings that follow a diagnosis that people miss out on that valuable time. That’s why I beat the drum so loudly about getting an early diagnosis.”
Leeza’s Place is Born
Eventually, Leeza would stop spinning her wheels looking for a miracle cure and get down to the business of being a caregiver and tackling the reality of facing Alzheimer’s head on.
“In a brilliant stroke of parenting before the disease had gotten too bad, my mother told me directly that I’m a reporter, and that what was happening to her was a story that I could tell to help others,” Gibbons says. “Every time I get to do that now, it’s an honor.”
From those simple marching orders, Gibbons has created a veritable Alzheimer’s Caregiver empire of invaluable resources for the loved ones of Alzheimer’s disease patients.
“There was no ‘a-ha’ moment and no epiphany that I had to start the Alzheimer’s programs and facilities that exist now,” she says. “It was such an organic evolution. It was like a blossoming. I was grieving and it dawned on me that here I am, this health advocate, waiting to get going. It was such a beautiful shield that helped me with my grief and it has been my heart’s employment ever since.”
The results of Gibbons’ self-described “blossoming” are staggering. To start, there’s Leeza’s Place: A Place for Caregivers, whose mission Gibbons’ describes so eloquently on the Leeza’s Place website:
“We began with my promise to my mother that I would take her story of stolen memories and use it to educate and empower. Now, we have a new promise…and that is to all of you who wonder where the strength will come from; all of you who wake in the middle of the night with a terrifying gasp of “now what”; all of you who journey so courageously and feel so alone. We promise there is life after diagnosis.
We promise to give you the tools to find your way. We promise the caregivers and their diagnosed loved ones that you will not have to look down a long, dark tunnel and fail to see a light. We will be a beacon for your journey of hope and together we will begin to make it better.”
There are currently four Leeza’s Place locations: Leeza’s Care Connection at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California, Leeza’s Place at Olympia Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, Leeza’s Place Memorial Hospital Pembroke in Pembroke Pines, Florida, and Leeza’s Place at Provena Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, Illinois.
“We’re not involved in the diagnosis or medical area of Alzheimer’s,” Gibbons explains. “What we do is become partners with continuing care in the community. We align ourselves with hospitals and non-profits while our partners handle the medical side of things. I like to think of us as trained in the matters of the heart. Our doors are always open and we make sure we do not have a clinical feel at all. Our centers have a living room setting.”
Leeza’s Place is focused on free caregiver support and provides information, both at the centers and on the website, about every aspect of dealing with a loved one’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Everything from advice about assisted living facilities, care providers, finances, insurance, legal information, and even retirement research is available.
On a personal level, nothing is off the table in terms of helping people get through the emotional upheaval of a loved one’s diagnosis. The facilities provide reiki stress relief, humor therapy, legacy writing, scrapbook writing, and even poetry readings. They offer different classes in every location in order to help victims any way that they can.
“We know what we’re doing works,” Gibbons says. “And we know there’s a high demand for it. We have four centers right now, but we need four thousand. That’s why it’s so important to affiliate with a website like AlzheimersDisease.com to let people know that this resource is out there. Even if someone doesn’t live near a facility, our websites can be extremely valuable.”
Remarkable Research on the Horizon
In addition to Leeza’s Place, Gibbons hosts the Dare2Care event in Hollywood that honors celebrities and their philanthropic interests. This “party with a purpose” raises funds for Leeza’s Place. But Gibbons believes in a two-pronged approach when it comes to taking on Alzheimer’s. While one aspect is dealing with the caregivers and the victims themselves, the other is the science and the scientists who are working to find an actual cure for the disease. To that end, Gibbons is using her appointment by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to be an Alzheimer’s Advocate to good use, as evidenced by her involvement with the renowned California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).
“It is a remarkable assignment,” Gibbons says. “I feel like we’re at the front door of cutting-edge cures. California is the mecca of stem cell science and this agency is the only one of its kind that has been created. The voters in our state designated three billion dollars to go to stem cell research. We didn’t want to wait for the National Institutes of Health or the government, we want to aggressively go after treatments and cures and get them to people as soon as possible.”
One of the more exciting developments that Gibbons has been a part of is a research project at the University of California - Irvine that involves injecting stem cells into the hippocampus to restore memory in mice. In the mouse models, the scientists put mice in a water maze and taught them how to get out so that each mouse could get out one hundred percent of the time. They then gave the mice an Alzheimer’s-like disease and waited for it to take effect so that none of the mice could navigate the maze. Once the mice reached this stage, stem cells were injected into the hippocampus of each mouse and many of them were able to navigate the maze again.
“I did a little victory dance when I heard about that study,” Gibbons says. “I know it’s just mice and there is a giant leap to go from a mouse to a human, but we all want to see evidence that something might work. Even if it doesn’t work, then we know that that’s a ‘no,’ and we learned something.”
The main objective of CIRM is to bring the brightest minds in stem cell science together. Case in point, the recent awarding of the Nobel Prize to CIRM-funded scientist Shinya Yamanaka, who discovered that mature, specialized cells can be reprogrammed to become immature cells capable of developing into all tissues of the body. This groundbreaking discovery has led to new research fields that will experiment with reprogramming human cells to create new opportunities to study diseases and develop methods for diagnosis and therapy.
“Early on there was controversy, but we were given a mandate by the voters and we have been disbursing the money as instructed,” Gibbons says. “It has funded such incredible scientists across the state and we are now a beacon of stem cell research.”
From the Laboratory to Real Life
While Gibbons has amassed enough knowledge about the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and caregiving to be considered an expert, she is quick to remind people that she is not a scientist, and when it comes to her own personal lifestyle, she just tries to avoid many of the common triggers that can be detrimental to overall health.
“Stress is a killer,” Gibbons says. “It’s not the friend of any disease. If you can mitigate stress in your life, it’ll be good for your heart and good for your mind. A great way to do that is through exercise. Daily exercise, a good night’s sleep, and stress reduction are three of the easiest, most proven things people can do to improve their health.”
Gibbons admits that practicing what she preaches on that front has taken time because she has a strong work ethic and has had to learn to shut things down at the end of the day.
“It’s an emerging skill that I’ve been developing that I’m proud of,” she says. “Sleep is imperative. I really prioritize it. Not stressing about work is imperative. I’ve learned to just walk away from whatever I’m doing to relax at the end of the day.”
From a diet perspective, Gibbons believes that a proper diet along with a healthy lifestyle can help delay the inevitable.
“How preventative are blueberries when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease? I don’t know, but I’m sure going to eat them!” she says. “I also take elderberry, tumeric, omega-3s, and curcumin, so it’s a balance. All I know is that I promised my kids that I’d do everything I could to make sure that I don’t get my mother’s disease. I’m sitting right here at the front lines of science to throw money at the best and brightest to find a cure. I believe I’m doing everything that I personally can to attack this disease and I sleep well at night. It’s like my mom always said, ‘Show up, do your best, and let go of the rest.’”
In Gibbons’ case, her best is changing lives for the better.
Leeza Gibbons is perhaps best known for her role as an anchor and reporter for Entertainment Tonight, but she currently hosts the AARP’s TV series My Generation on PBS as well as co-hosts the syndicated show America Now. For more information on Leeza, visit www.leezagibbons.com. For information on Leeza’s Place, visit www.leezasplace.org. Follow Leeza on Twitter @LeezaGibbons
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