Norman Lear on Longevity, Laughter and Love for America

Recently I interviewed Norman Lear for PBS Next Avenue. The 92-year-old TV producing icon remains sharp – both in wit and wisdom. For September Healthy Aging Month, I share his prescription for a long, happy life that includes tips which many caregivers may find helpful while navigating their caregiver journey.

Read the full PBS interview here: Norman Lear – Longevity, Laughter, Love of America

Norman Lear sandwiched between Sherri Snelling (left) and Alex Witt (right) of MSNBC

Norman Lear sandwiched between Sherri Snelling (left) and Alex Witt (right) of MSNBC

©2015 Sherri Snelling


Sandwich Generation caregivers usher in a new era at work

Career Blocks dreamstime_m_9545288 (2)Labor Day seems like an opportune time to highlight the nation’s largest volunteer health care workforce: America’s 65 million family caregivers. With seven out of 10 caregivers working full or part-time, more employers are having to address a shift in employee lifestyle needs from child care to elder care.

Earlier this year, I spoke at a Boomer Summit conference about employers and the best practices for working caregivers. I started with the famous logo from the AMC series Mad Men (Don Draper in silhouette, cigarette smoldering) with the headline, “The end of an era.”

Yes, the TV drama series based on life in the ‘60s and ‘70s ended its run this spring but we are also experiencing the end of one era and the dawn of another in offices, factories and businesses across the country as the rising tide of Sandwich Generation caregivers juggle life as working moms and dads while now also caring for older parents.

Since the ‘60s the needs and lifestyles of the American worker have continuously evolved and many employers have responded with the types of benefits and services to support those needs.  When women entered the workforce in record numbers in the ‘70s and ‘80s, more child care services became the norm.

Today with women comprising about half of the U.S. workforce and most boomers postponing retirement, workplace issues are no longer about just child care but more often about elder care as well.  Currently, 15 percent of the entire U.S. workforce is performing their first job at their workplace then performing their second job caring for an older loved one when they get home. By 2020, one in five workers will be over the age of 50 – the age of a typical Sandwich Generation caregiver who will help children facing looming college costs while also managing the needs – physical, emotional and financial – for older parents.

“My employer’s program to support caregivers was a lifeline,” said Matthew Skahill, associate director, scientific liaison for Astellas, a pharmaceutical company headquartered in Northbrook, Ill.

Skahill, age 51, found himself with one daughter at college abroad, another daughter gearing up for college applications and an aging and ailing father with Parkinson’s disease who lives in Missouri while Skahill navigates caring from a distance in Colorado.

The program launched by his company last year, includes a robust set of benefits including usage of a professional geriatric care manager to meet with the elder, assess the needs, create a care plan and then walk the family through the options for community services and other help. While this type of service is not new, a care manager network program from UnitedHealthcare has been around for more than 30 years, Astellas included other benefits Skahill found invaluable.

“I was able to access the identify theft protection service for both my daughter in London, who had suspicious activity on her credit card, as well as my younger daughter,” explained Skahill.  He is planning to access the college financial counseling service of the benefit to prepare for his second child entering college soon and to look for additional help with his older daughter, who is pursuing a college degree in London. And, Skahill and his father are discussing having a legal document review to ensure everything is in order based on his father’s latest wishes and ongoing caregiving needs.

According to 2013 Pew Research report, nearly half (47 percent) of all adults in their 40s and 50s  are considered the Sandwich Generation with a parent over age 65 and at least one child under age 18 or an adult child still receiving financial assistance from mom and dad. In addition, the report stated one in seven Sandwich Generation caregivers are providing financial support for both their children and their aging parents.

“We take a long term vision of our employees – they are as important to us as the products we create or the patients we serve with our products,” said Collette Taylor, senior vice president of human resources and facilities management for Astellas. “Our employees are an investment and since our workforce tends to skew slightly older than the national average, we took a holistic view of their lifestyles and our role in helping them be healthy, financially secure and happy. This program is not just a source of pride for us, it also makes smart business sense.”

While the $31 billion a year MetLife and the National Alliance for Caregiving  estimated U.S. companies encounter based on lost productivity is one rationale for companies to institute caregiver support for its employees, impact to the bottom line is not always about productivity, it can also be about flexibility.

Tall Buildings dreamstime_17159364 (2)A study published in the Academy of Management Journal, found companies that employ workplace flexibility such as job sharing, phased retirement of older workers, flex hours, telecommuting and other benefits for caregivers may have some upfront costs but ultimately realize a return on the bottom line. One study tracked the announcement of new work-life balance policies by Fortune 500 companies and found those firms’s stock prices rose .36 percent on days following these announcements suggesting investors believe these policies to be profitable investments.  The White House Council of Economic Advisors Report (June 2014) showed 52 percent of workers said they could do their job better if allowed a more flexible schedule.

LifeCare, a work-life services company that provides the caregiver programs to several Fortune 500 companies with its 61,000 clients, has benchmarked utilization of its caregiver services and found it has almost doubled from 2011 to 2014.

“This increase in using the expertise of a professional geriatric care manager showcases the growing need for working caregivers to receive some support through their employer,” said Bert Wachtelhausen, senior vice president of sales, client services and marketing at LifeCare. “These type of services are investments now in employees which pay off in long-term dividends for a company’s bottom line.”

Another organization that recognizes the caregiving role of its faculty and employees is Emory University. For more than 20 years, this academic institution has offered flexible leave policies, long term care insurance, research and referral services for elder care help, each year adding more to its caregiving services menu.  Today, caregiver workshops and access to a professional geriatric care manager network have high utilization rates among caregiving faculty and staff. The growing demand for caregiver guidance recently led Emory University to add an Onsite Care Consultant.

“Caring for and worrying about an older parent is often hard, especially if they do not live nearby,” said Skahill. “To know my employer not only understood what I was going through but provided services to help me through this time in life, makes a huge difference in being able to manage it all.  I feel like they are sincere in wanting to make a difference in my life.”

Note about the author: Sherri Snelling hosts the monthly “Caregiver Network” webinars for LifeCare’s 61,000 employer clients and recently spoke at the employee launch event of the Astellas caregiver benefit program. [This article originally appeared on PBS Next]

©2015 Sherri Snelling

September 23-29 is Falls Prevention Week


SEP 23 Falls Prevention WeekOne of  the leading causes of fatal and non-fatal injuries for seniors is falls in the home. According to the National Council on Aging, every 20 minutes a senior dies from a fall in the home and more than 2 million Americans over age 65 are treated in hospital emergency rooms due to a fall-related accident. The 8th Annual Falls Prevention Week kicks off September 23 – the first official day of fall.

Read our CEO Sherri Snelling’s articles about falls risk and prevention and how to modify your loved one’s home for increased safety at home:

Caregiver Tips to Help Prevent Your Parent Falling at Home:

Home safety tour with CAPS expert


September 21 is World Alzheimer’s Day

SEP 21 World Alz Day

Today, more than 36 million people worldwide Alzheimer’s disease – more than 5 million of them are Americans. This disease robs patients of who they are and leaves families and caregivers devastated of losing the essence of who their loved one was. This disease called “the long good-bye” is becoming a societal epidemic. If you live to age 85, you have a 1 in 2 chance of developing some type of dementia.

A long-time advocate for awareness of this disease, read our CEO Sherri’s Snelling’s celebrity interviews and other articles on Alzheimer’s disease:

Glen Campbell’s Farewell Tour

Music of the Night – 2013 Alzheimer’s Association “A Night at Sardi’s” Event

Stars Take Center Stage to Fight Alzheimer’s disease – 2012 Alzheimer’s Association “A Night at Sardi’s” Event

Alzheimer’s Epidemic Hits Women Hardest

Caregiving Conversation Between Your Heart and Your Head

September is Emergency Preparedness Month

Sep Emer Prep Month

Are you prepared for natural disasters and other emergencies? If you are a family caregiver, it is not just about your immediate family – you need a plan on how to care for an older loved one in an emergency situation – whether they live at home or in a facility. What are the questions to ask if your loved one lives in a facility? What is a “go bag” for an older loved one? Read our CEO Sherri Snelling’s article on caregiver planning for disasters:

Why Caregivers Need to Plan for the Worst – Emergency Preparedness

September is Healthy Aging Month


SEP Healthy Aging Month 2015

In September we celebrate healthy aging. As our society faces the silver tsunami of more older people, longevity issues, as well as the caregiving crisis, are at the top of the news. Statistics show 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day and 1 in 50 baby boomer age women will live to 100 – are we ready?

When it comes to caring for this aging population, the 65 million Americans who are caring for older loved ones often ignore our own health and wellness that puts our own longevity at risk. Taking time to care for you while caregiving is essential.

Read our CEO Sherri Snelling’s interviews with a true icon in entertainment and how to live longer better: Norman Lear on Longevity, Laughter, Love of America. You can also read Sherri’s interview about another “living longer, living better” David Murdock – 90-year-old billionaire and caregiver and a best-selling author and cancer doctor, David Agus, who writes about simple ways to live longer and better: Want to Live Longer?

Also read Sherri’s articles on how caregivers can achieve greater longevity by focusing on their own health and wellness needs:

Caregiver RX for Stress: 3 Steps to Me Time Monday

An Essential Caregiving Fairy Tale: Sleeping Beauty

Waterworld – Refreshing Caregiver Health One Glass at a Time

Your Real Age – How Caregivers Can Find Their Inner Child

Caregiving Tipping Points

We are a nation of caregivers – according to the National Alliance for Caregiving one in every three households includes a family member who is caring for a loved one who physically or mentally requires help with some or many of life’s activities. It may start by taking mom or dad to the doctor’s office or physical therapy or helping them pay bills or mow the lawn, but often escalates into more intense caregiving such as feeding, bathing and dressing a parent or loved one who has physical limitations.

Often when caregiving is at its most physically and emotionally intense levels, there comes a time in every caregiver’s journey when the ability to “keep calm and carry on” becomes an insurmountable challenge.

Following are the most common caregiver tipping points – they typically fall into three areas: physical challenges, safety challenges and behavioral challenges which all affect the caregiver’s own health and wellness.

Physical Challenges

1. Help walking and lifting


When a parent, spouse or other loved one becomes physically unable to walk without help of a cane, walker and especially if they are in a wheelchair, lifting and transferring becomes a physical challenge for the caregiver. For instance, a wife weighing 120 pounds trying to lift the dead weight of a husband who weighs 200 pounds into and out of bed, wheelchair or a car can result in shoulder, neck or back injury for the caregiver and a possible harmful fall for the spouse.

AgingCare reports 52 percent of musculoskeletal caregiver injuries occur when lifting or transferring. Being trained on a proper lifting technique and avoiding twisting, stooping and bending positions are critical for the caregiver.  Think like a weightlifter – always bend the knees, keep the back straight, ensure you have a firm grip on your loved one and let the leg muscles do most of the work. Alternatively, engaging the help of a stronger family member, friend or home health aide often becomes essential for the health of both the care recipient and caregiver.

2. Incontinence

One of the toughest tasks for caregivers is cleaning and changing the diaper of a loved one who has the inability to control bladder and bowel movements. Often an overactive bladder creates a frequency to urinate and accidents happen because the person is not mobile due to hip or knee surgery or is physically unable to get quickly to the bathroom. It can also be tied to neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s or dementia or other health issues such as diabetes, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis or prostate cancer.  Alzheimer’s patients sometimes forget to follow regular toileting schedules or don’t remember where the bathroom is located resulting in spontaneous accidents.  People who suffer from incontinence are often humiliated by the accidents and embarrassed by the adult diapers required to help with the problem.

“We know 23 million men and one out of every two women over the age of 50 suffer from some type of bladder leakage to more intense incontinence issues,” says Liz Metz, brand director for Depend North America, one of the leading makers of adult diapers. “The social stigma associated with incontinence is one of the issues our latest brand campaign is trying to overcome – this is just another area of our lives where we have to adapt to aging.”

The Depend advertising campaign features celebrities such as actors Harry Hamlin and Lisa Rinna on a red carpet, Cheryl Burke, a professional dancer on “Dancing with the Stars,” and NFL football players Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers and Demarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys trying on briefs which are stylish and comfortable yet control small bladder leakage to larger incontinence problems.

A resource for caregivers facing this challenge is The CareGiver Partnership, an online shopping and information site featuring an extensive offering of more than 400 products and discounts where caregivers can also request samples to test before they buy product in bulk.  The site also includes comprehensive information for caregivers about incontinence issues and free telephonic customer service support from actual family caregivers who understand the issue.

Safety Challenges

1. Falls

Senior on Stairs dreamstime_m_18442871 (2)

According to the CDC, every 28 minutes a senior dies from injuries from falling and 2 million older Americans are treated in ERs every year from falling at home. Preventing fall risk is crucial for both caregivers and their loved ones.

In your loved one’s home or living environment, clear pathways for easy access and mobility, remove rugs and other obstacles that may trip a loved one who cannot lift feet or is using a cane or walker, install sturdy horizontal and vertical grab bars in showers and baths. Consider moving a master bedroom from upper floors to the ground floor to avoid stairs. Also, have a loved one’s eyes checked on a regular basis, often vision problems can result in falls and understand certain medications may make a loved one dizzy or disoriented – always ask the doctor of the side effects of new medications.

Caregivers who do not live with their loved one or cannot be vigilant 24/7 should consider some of the latest technology to help prevent falls or alert caregivers in case of a fall.  Products such as 5Star Urgent Response device or smartphone service from Great Call which provides GPS-enabled direct 9-1-1 help, CareLine Home Safety Telephone System from VTech or Philips Lifeline products allow caregivers to have peace of mind their loved one will receive fast response in case of a fall or other safety problem.






2. Wandering

Walking in Snow dreamstime_m_15100146 (2)

Most typically associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, a loved one who has a tendency to wander is a serious safety issue. Six out of 10 of those with Alzheimer’s have a tendency to wander which can become a risk for death when a loved one wanders in inclement weather and is not quickly found.

Dr. Sally Brooks, vice president of physician and medical development for Kindred Healthcare, who cares for elderly parents, had a scare with her father who suffers with dementia. After her father wandered from the family home a few times and was found by local police, it became essential to find a facility that could accommodate her mother’s chronic depression and limited mobility and help keep her father safe from wandering.  However, the assisted living facility Dr. Brooks found for her parents had a hiccup in safety when it comes to her father’s wandering tendency.

“One day my dad left the facility unsupervised,” remembers Dr. Brooks. “He had his hat and coat on and started a conversation with a doctor in the hallway who thought he was a visitor.  The doctor allowed my dad on the elevator as they chatted and my dad walked right out the front door of the facility.”

Fortunately, her dad was found but the potential for harm still existed.  “I realized that even though I had difficulty managing dad’s wandering issue on my own, I had to remain vigilant with the assisted living staff to ensure they monitored him properly to avoid any future incidents,” says Dr. Brooks. “Even in a secure setting like the assisted living facility, my role as caregiver remains being the person who ensures my parent’s safety through good communication and frequent check-ins with my parents and staff.”

Caregivers of loved ones who wander but want to keep them home and safe can also find help through technology. The Alzheimer’s Associations offers both Medic+Alert Safe Return and Comfort Zone GPS tracking for those with early on-set or advanced dementia.



Behavioral Challenges

1. Aggressive behavior

Wicked Witch Hand dreamstime_m_20831851 (2)

Whether it is the paranoia and outbursts associated with sundowning of a loved one with Alzheimer’s or a spouse or parent who has been hurtful or emotionally controlling in the past, managing the emotional strain of caregiving is hard but emotional or physical abuse can become a tipping point for most caregivers.

Many caregivers feel obligated to care for an abusive spouse or parent because they have spent a lifetime coping with the situation.  They feel guilt over their loved one now needing their help because of an illness or other health issue but this is an environment where a caregiver’s own health and wellness is at risk.  Often seen with those with certain mental health issues or with veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), several studies show 50 percent of PTSD veterans commit spousal or family abuse.

Finding support groups where caregivers can share openly with others who many experience similar issues is one of the best avenues for caregivers getting the help they need to make decisions about their loved one’s care.

“Caregivers have to get over the guilt of not wanting to care for someone who is hurting them emotionally or physically,” says Dr. Diane Denholm, author of The Caregiving Wife’s Handbook. “An abusive relationship will only get worse when caregiving is needed. Caregivers have to remember – safety is paramount – both the safety of their loved one and their own safety.”

2. Failure to communicate

It might be a stroke or Alzheimer’s or result of surgery from throat, lip or other cancer which makes communication difficult and becomes a possible tipping point for caregivers to continue to provide adequate care.

“For the 15 million Americans who care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, we have to become detectives in looking for clues in behavioral changes and adapting our communication style,” says Ruth Drew, director of family and information services for the Alzheimer’s Association.

Drew explains those with Alzheimer’s often feel fearful which can lead to agitation, frustration, confusion and depression. If a loved one becomes combative or physically distressed, caregivers should check to see if there is a bed sore, wound or other health issue causing the problem.  Also, understanding distractions such as the new face of an in-home care worker or younger boisterous children can cause agitation.  She recommends caregivers seek expert advice, such as the support programs found through the Alzheimer’s Association which provide online and telephonic lifelines to caregivers who are struggling.

“If we could see the world through their eyes we would recognize there is a reason to their distress, but all caregivers can do is try to read the cues and go with the flow,” says Drew. “Caregivers also have to realize they cannot do this alone.  Everyone has a different threshold for what they can and cannot do so don’t judge yourself by others or have guilt over why you’re struggling more than someone else did.”


©2015 Sherri Snelling

The Famous Faces Behind the Men of Caregiving

We think of the typical caregiver being a boomer-age woman caring for her older parents yet according to the National Alliance for Caregiving, men make up 34 percent of the 65 million caregivers across the country.

And those are men who are in primary caregiving roles – it does not represent the husbands, brothers and friends who are providing the support network for other caregivers. Whether it’s giving a sister a break like Patrick Dempsey did for his sisters who cared for their mom with ovarian cancer or providing the much-needed comfort and care for a caregiving wife like Seth Rogen does for his wife Lauren Miller who cares for her mom with Alzheimer’s disease, men are essential to the caregiving nation we are becoming.

This article celebrates our men who are caregivers – heroes all.  Following is a list of men you might know who have all been on the caregiving journey.

To the men of caregiving – we salute you!

Sons caring for parents


Baldwin-BrothersThe Baldwin Brothers – Alec, William, Stephen and Daniel comprise the famous Baldwin brothers – actors and activists all. Yet in their hearts they are mama’s boys – helping their two sisters care for their mom, Carol, who successfully battled breast cancer. Carol is one of the 2.9 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. according to the American Cancer Society.  She formed the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Research Fund where all four sons have been actively involved in helping to raise more than $3 million for medical research grants to find a cure.

Patrick Dempsey dreamstime_m_20160433 (2)Patrick Dempsey –On TV he plays “Dr. McDreamy” the brain surgeon eye candy on Grey’s Anatomy. In real life, Patrick has helped care for his mom, Amanda, as she survived two bouts of Stage IV ovarian cancer.  Providing the much-needed support for his two older sisters, Patrick commuted between his home base with his wife and children in Los Angeles cross country to his hometown in Maine where his mom and sisters live.  According to the National Cancer Institute, about 60-80 percent of ovarian cancer patients face a recurrence of the disease. Because of the stealth nature of ovarian cancer, Patrick said in an interview with Web MD, “Be relentless, question information, and double check it. Get a second opinion. Do your research.”








Seth Rogen dreamstime_xs_23106908 (2)Seth Rogen – Star of movies such as Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, comedic actor Seth Rogen is part of the caregiving team along with his wife who care for her mother with Alzheimer’s disease.  Diagnosed at age 55, Seth was shocked at how early Alzheimer’s can strike a family and how little people of his generation know about the disease.  Seth and his wife are two of the 15 million Americans who care for someone with dementia. This star of The Guilt Trip with Barbra Streisand (whose mom also had Alzheimer’s), Rogen realized Alzheimer’s is no laughing matter.  He is now an advocate for the Alzheimer’s Association and has created, along with wife Lauren, the annual “Hilary for Charity” comedy improve event with fellow comedians such as Paul Rudd and Steve Carroll to raise funds and awareness among younger generations for the disease.








Dwayne Johnson dreamstime_xs_23274249 (2) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – Playing superheroes, military warriors and loving dads on film and starring in the latest Fast and Furious movie, former professional wrestler Dwayne Johnson has also cared for a mom through lung cancer.  In 2010, Dwayne announced his mom had beaten stage 3 lung cancer where she had undergone chemotherapy and radiation. Dwayne told Jay Leno on his late night talk show, “She fought like a warrior.”  Just this summer. Dwayne purchased a white Cadillac for his mom, who had her car repossessed when he was growing up and she was a struggling single mom, in celebration of her ongoing cancer victory and as a thank you for always being there to support his dreams.

Rob Lowe dreamstime_m_19870699 (2)

Rob Lowe – In the ‘80s he was the heartthrob member of the famous Brat Pack and more recently his career has flourished in TV as a star in both dramas and sitcoms on The West Wing, Parks & Recreation and a recent campy turn in the HBO feature on Liberace, Behind the Candelabra starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. Rob has also been a caregiver for both is mother and father who divorced when he was still in his teens. He lost his mom (and his grandmother and great-grandmother) to breast cancer and helped his dad through a successful battle with lymphoma. An advocate for both diseases, Rob has been the Lee National Denim Day ambassador for breast cancer and filmed a PSA TV spot for lymphoma about the risk of infection and other side effects of chemotherapy.

Joey McIntyre dreamstime_m_22662550 (2)Joey McIntyre – The ‘90s boy bander is out on the road with his Boston bandmates for a nostalgic tour for the older yet sexier NKOTB (formerly known as New Kids On the Block).  As one of nine kids growing up in Needham, Mass., Joey has also stepped into the spotlight as advocate and caregiver for his mom who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  When I interviewed Joey at the Alzheimer’s Association A Night At Sardi’s gala event (watch the interview with Joey here), he told me, ““It’s a process and it’s different for everybody . . . it is bittersweet because with my mom, she is still there, she’s got the one liners and she is so funny and she is still a performer but she doesn’t remember five minutes ago . . . it’s tough for the families.”

Bryan Cranston, Peter Gallagher, Victor GarberBryan Cranston (AMC’s Breaking Bad), Victor Garber (TV’s Alias, Titanic) and Peter Gallagher (USA Network’s Covert Affairs) – These three sons and TV/film stars have all cared for moms with Alzheimer’s disease.  Peter, who cared for his mom for the more than 20 years she lived with the disease, shared with me at an Alzheimer’s Association event, “An Alzheimer’s diagnosis can be as devastating to the caregiver as to the person diagnosed. Doing it yourself, I don’t know how long you are going to last . . . [but] the more you understand about the disease the better.”  He also said that this disease can be “embarrassing” and “terrifying” but that is why the Alzheimer’s Association is a great place to start to find the help and support needed. (watch my full interview with Peter here)




Henry WinklerHenry Winkler – Even though it’s been 40 years since Happy Days appeared on TV screens, the cool biker with a heart, “The Fonz” is an enduring pop culture icon.  The actor who brought the Fonz to life is also a caregiver.  Henry serves as the ambassador for the Open Arms: Raising Awareness of Upper Limb Spasticity educational campaign with a mission to help those who are impacted by upper limb spasticity and do not know where to turn for help.  Personally impacted by the issue, Henry’s mother suffered a stroke and for 10 years Henry helped care for her she suffered from upper limb spasticity.

Husbands caring for wives

valerie harper and tony cacciottiTony Cacciotti – You may not know his name but you know his wife as “Rhoda” from the famous ‘70s TV show The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Husband of TV actress Valerie Harper who was recently diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Harper offered in interviews how “bereft” her husband was and that he was having a tough time handling the diagnosis.  At first, he hid the diagnosis from her until they received a second opinion.  Since then the couple are living life fully each day.  Harper has said, “We’re all terminal – it’s just a matter of when and where and how.”

Brosnan, Short, Wilder, MurdockPierce Brosnan (Bond movies, Remington Steele), Martin Short  (Saturday Night Live), Gene Wilder (Willa Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Young Frankenstein) and David Murdock (billionaire owner of Dole Foods) – All four lost wives to ovarian cancer, known as the silent disease because symptoms are often masquerading as other health issues.  Brosnan helped wife Cassandra battle the disease for years until she succumbed at age 42. Martin Short lost wife Nancy Dolman to the disease.  Gene Wilder and David Murdock took the grief of their loss and turned it into centers for helping others and finding a cure.  Wilder, whose wife was comedian/actress Gilda Radner, sought various treatments for her cancer for three years.  In her memory he co-founded Gilda’s Club, now part of the Cancer Support Community. Murdock lost wife Gabrielle at age 43 and invested $500 million in personal wealth to create the leading research institute, North Carolina Research Campus, dedicated to using plant-based solutions to prevent chronic illness such as cancer.

paul-mccartney1Paul McCartney – As one of the famous Beatles, he sang, “Will you still love me when I’m 64?” When it came to love, Paul’s muse and partner for 29 years was beloved wife Linda.  He would have loved her beyond age 64 if she had survived.  Sadly, he lost her to breast cancer when she was only 56. In an interview with the Daily Mail, McCartney admitted to needing help with the loss, “I got a counsellor because I knew that I would need some help. He was great, particularly in helping me get rid of my guilt [about wishing I’d been] perfect all the time.”

mitt romneyMitt Romney – As a 2012 presidential candidate and successful former governor and businessman, Romney attributes much of his success in life to his wife Anne.  She gracefully lives with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease affecting 2 million people worldwide.

U.S. Open - Round OnePhil Mickelson – The three-times U.S. Masters Golf Tournament pro became a caregiver in 2009 when his wife, Amy, was diagnosed with breast cancer.  He suspended his playing career to help his wife through chemotherapy and care for their young children.

Hal Holbrook, Dixie Carter dreamstime_xs_18921771 (2)Hal Holbrook – Film actor Holbrook (Lincoln, Water for Elephants, Into the Wild) cared for his actress wife Dixie Carter (Designing Women) through her battle with endometrial cancer which she lost in 2010.

Facebook photoMichael Tucker – An early breakout role in Diner led to his best known starring role in TV’s L.A. Law where he appeared on the same screen with wife Jill Eikenberry. They are a great example of a caregiving team caring for Jill’s mom who has dementia.  Mike chronicled their caregiving journey in his humorous book, Family Meals.

Dads caring for special needs children

Montegna, Peete, GorhamJoe Montagena (Godfather Part III, TV’s Criminal Minds), Rodney Peete (NFL star quarterback),  Christopher Gorham (USA Network’s Covert Affairs)All three of these fathers have children on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  Joe’s daughter Mia, now in her 20s, was born prematurely and eventually was diagnosed with autism.  Rodney’s son, R.J., was diagnosed at age three and is now a teen.  He wrote a book about his struggles in coping with his son’s diagnosis, Not My Boy! A Father, A Son and One Family’s Journey with Autism and runs the non-profit organization, HollyRod Foundation, he and wife Holly Robinson Peete founded to help families facing Parkinson’s disease and autism. Christopher’s son was diagnosed a few years ago at age 9 with Asperger’s syndrome.  He has talked about getting outside help with everyday tasks such as grocery shopping and housecleaning so he and his wife can dedicate time to the therapies and interventions needed for their son while also caring for two other children.

colin farrellColin Farrell – known for his bad boy behavior and mesmerizing film roles, Colin says his life changed when his oldest son was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder known as Angelman syndrome.  Characterized by jerky movements, sleeping problems, developmental disability and seizures which can be treated, there is no cure for the disorder.  Colin has said in interviews when your child takes his first steps, you hold your breath but when your special needs child finally takes a step after being told he may never walk, “those first steps take you into a whole different realm.”

John McGinleyJohn C. McGinley –Best known for his starring role on TV’s Scrubs, he’s also starred in films such as Platoon, Wall Street  and most recently 42, John has a teen son with Down syndrome (DS).  A longtime advocate for DS organizations, he currently is on the board of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation.  One in every 691 births result in a child with DS and after age 40, DS adults have a 100 percent risk of Alzheimer’s disease as well.

Brothers caring for a sibling

Jamie foxxJamie Foxx – He’s an Oscar-winning star (Ray) and music artist but Jamie is most proud of his sister, DeOndra, who has not let her Down syndrome hold her back.  As an ambassador for the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, DeOndra has danced onstage with Denzel Washington and appeared with her famous brother in front of millions at the Grammys and even appeared in one of his music videos.  Caring for family comes naturally to Jamie – as he told Entertainment Tonight, “This little lady right here lives with me along with my other sister, along with my father and my mother. So, we’re one big happy family.”

Ashton Kutcher dreamstime_xs_21212521 (2)Ashton Kutcher –Starring on one of TV’s highest rated sitcoms, Two and a Half Men, Ashton is a loving twin brother to Michael who was born with cerebral palsy and cardiomyopathy requiring a heart transplant at age 13.  As the family anxiously waited for a donor heart, Ashton said he actually contemplated suicide just so he could save his twin brother’s life.  Michael told a People magazine reporter, “Ashton never left my side,” talking of his brother’s devotion. “He showed me the love one brother has for another.” Michael currently serves as a spokesperson for the Reaching for the Stars Foundation that helps children with cerebral palsy which his brother also supports.









Tommy Hilfiger dreamstime_m_16272164 (2)Tommy Hilfiger – Fashion designer Tommy has been a 22-year supporter of the Nancy Davis Foundation Race to Erase MS event mostly to raise awareness and funds for a disease his sister has lived with for more than 40 years.  His sister Dorothy, now 61, has lived with multiple sclerosis since her teens.  Her one-year-older brother, Tommy, one of nine children, told WebMD, “When you see someone’s life change as a result of a disease, it really hits home.”

Friends and Lovers

both-of-us-ryan-oneal-farrah-fawcettRyan O’Neal – He was the tragic star of the ‘70s movie Love Story in which he lost his love and soul mate (played by Ali MacGraw) to cancer.  But film turned to reality when he cared for long-time love Farrah Fawcett as she battled  and lost her life to anal cancer.  He chronicled their love affair and those last three years trying new therapies and traveling to Germany for experimental treatments to find a cure for her cancer in his 2012 book, Both of Us: My Life with Farrah.

 CastofCaregivers Cover FINALThese stories excerpted from A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care

©2015 Sherri Snelling

3 Gears of Seniors and Driving – How Caregivers Can Help Loved Ones Make the Shift

One of the toughest issues caregivers face with older parents is the dilemma around seniors and driving.  We’ve all seen the news with tragic tales of older drivers who accelerate when they are supposed to brake or drive the wrong way on the highway – putting everyone at risk sometimes with fatal results for others and themselves.  The dilemma is how do you know if mom or dad should not drive anymore?  How do you have the conversation around driving retirement?  How do you take away the keys without taking away complete independence and mobility for your older parent?  Adapted from my book, A Cast of Caregivers, here are the three gears caregivers need to know and how to shift through them when it comes to senior driving safety and mobility:

  1. Driver Assessment
  2. Driving Retirement
  3. Alternative Transportation

Route 66 dreamstime_m_5907163 (2)

Route 66

Today, 10 percent of all drivers are over age 70 – and by 2030 one in every five drivers will be over age 65. Among these older drivers; between 23-40 percent will have macular degeneration creating vision-related problems for driver safety according to the Macular Degeneration Partnership. The Automobile Club of America states men over age 70 outlive their safe driving ability by six years and for women it is 11 years. But those are just numbers. When it comes to driving, skills and judgment are more important than age.

Following are several warning signs that are the most common cause for concern about your parent’s driving ability. You want to look for patterns not just one incident. Keep in mind some of these issues are minor, others more serious.

1. They have become fearful, nervous or anxious about driving.

2. There are ongoing scrapes and dents to their car – and they confess they hit the mailbox or curb – again and again and again.

3. They have difficulty staying in lanes.

4. They have trouble following road signs or street markings.

5. They have a slower response time to basic driving skills like braking or accelerating.

If you’ve noticed the signs as well as taken a ride with your loved one, and felt like you were on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland, it’s time to do two things: look into adjusting things in your loved one’s car for better vision and mobility, and think about a driving assessment to determine your loved one’s real driving performance.

WrenchThe Adjustment Bureau

Sometimes a quick adjustment to seats or steering wheels can make a big difference. Remember, we shrink in size as we age. In fact, the Harvard Health Letter says after age 40 we lose ½ inch every decade – ultimately decreasing in size by about three inches in our golden years. In addition, arthritis or osteoporosis may make our driver’s seat position, our flexibility and our reaction time different from 10-20 years ago. The MIT AgeLab recently conducted tests and found between the ages of 30 and 70 we lose 20-30 percent in our range of motion and develop poor neck rotation that can double the risk of an accident.

One test comes from AARP, American Society on Aging, Auto Club of America and the American Occupational Therapy Association who collaborated on a 15-minute, 12-point assessment for senior drivers at car dealerships, senior centers and other locations called CarFit to ensure drivers have the right car settings for their safe driving needs. Three out of 10 senior drivers who have taken the test had at least one problem – such as space between the steering wheel and chest or line of sight over the steering wheel – needing adjustment.

You can also work with an occupational therapist to assess your loved one’s driving. These experts are called driver rehabilitation specialists. In the same way you would seek rehabilitation therapy for your loved one after an accident or surgery, these specialists assess your loved one’s driving skills and prescribe a rehabilitation program or alternative transportation options. Your loved one’s physician can refer you or the American Occupational Therapy Association will have these experts listed in your local area. Your loved one can also take an online driving assessment test from the Automobile Club of America called Roadwise Review or from AARP called the Driver Safety Program. There is also a wealth of information for caregivers on a site created by a former Ohio State Highway patrolman, Keeping Us Safe.  It includes a senior driver self-assessment, a workbook for caregivers and their older driver, a binding contract if families decide to have an older loved one commit to not driving when the time comes and more.

In addition to driver assessment courses, there are also ways to hone driver skills from the safety of your loved one’s living room chair – all he needs is a computer. Posit Science® has a software product, , Drivesharp, which is a suite of brain fitness exercises recommended by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Numerous studies show that drivers who train for just 8-10 hours, process visual information faster, see more of the roadway, and react faster in situations where split seconds matter. In fact, reaction time improves by the equivalent of 22 additional feet in stopping distance at 55 mph. It has been embraced by several national auto insurers because it actually cuts crash risk in half for older drivers. It is not a driver education or assessment, but rather a brain fitness software program that sharpens the brain. Studies show the benefits extend beyond driving to improvements in standard measures of quality of life, including functional independence, confidence, mood and overall health.

Before asking for your parent’s car keys – consider Step 1 these driver assessments.

Click here to read Gear 2 – Driving Retirement and How to Have the Conversation.

Click here to read Gear 3 – Alternative Transportation Plans.


©2015 Sherri Snelling

Caring for Those with Invisible Wounds

Military CaregiverFollowing is Sherri Snelling’s article that was originally published on Huff Post 50 about the caregivers of veterans with PTSD and TBI – the homefront heroes of those with invisible wounds.


Caring for Those Heroes with Invisible Wounds

Music, Military Service and Multiple Sclerosis – How the Osmonds Triumph

Alan R. Osmond - California National Guard

Alan R. Osmond – California National Guard

Today, as we honor the military men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice on the altar of freedom for our country, I honor one veteran who has led his family on a triumphant journey through the music industry and the battle against multiple sclerosis.  I was privileged to interview both Alan and David Osmond – father and son duo of the famous Osmond clan about their inspirational story where both men are triumphing over this debilitating chronic illness. Following is an excerpt of that interview from my book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care.









The Show Goes On for the Osmonds

They say lightning never strikes twice in the same place yet this is exactly what happened to Alan Osmond and his son David Osmond of the famous entertainment family.  This lightning came in two forms:  great musical and performing talent as well as a gift for songwriting but also something less glamorous:  a diagnosis of the autoimmune disease multiple sclerosis (MS).

Alan and David Osmond

Alan and David Osmond

Growing up Osmond means you know how to be at the pinnacle of the entertainment world –you sing, you dance and no matter what the show must go on.  This was no problem for David Osmond, one of eight sons born to Alan, the oldest of the famous Osmond Brothers who shot to fame along with Donny, Merrill, Wayne and Jay in the 1960s-70s (Marie and Jimmy came later).  As a torchbearer for the Osmond dynasty, David, age 32, has a successful solo career, still performs as the lead singer for the Osmonds – Second Generation, is hosting a new TV music competition reality series and participated in the eighth season of American Idol.

But, imagine if one day you woke up and found you could not walk, you could not hold a guitar, you could not sing because the pain in your chest and paralysis in your body reached from your toes to your diaphragm making it hard to breathe.  This was what David Osmond faced in 2005 when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and went from a promising entertainment career into a wheelchair while still in his 20s.  Remarkably, it was the same diagnosis his father, Alan, had been given almost 20 years earlier when he was in his late 30s.  What makes this story so inspiring is that for the Osmond family, whose longevity in show business is legendary, both Alan and David are not only living with MS today, they are actually thriving.

Multiple sclerosis, which affects 2.5 million people worldwide, is an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system and for which there is no cure.  Essentially, scars and lesions cause interference with the transmission of signals to the brain and spinal cord that then cause the unpredictable and often debilitating symptoms that MS patients experience such as numbness, tingling and searing pain in the extremities, periods of partial or full blindness, loss of sensory function such as taste or smell and even full paralysis.

While researchers feel there may be genetic predictors for MS (the National Multiple Sclerosis Society states that siblings or children of those with MS have a 1 in 40 risk of also having MS), there is no clear connection that one generation passes it to another.  What Alan did pass to his son David is a “can do” rather than a “can’t do” attitude towards living with MS.

“When I originally received the diagnosis, I had tested positive for West Nile Virus but some of the symptoms did not match up so they tested for MS and found I had the relapsing/remitting form of this disease which my doctors believe may have been dormant in my system but was triggered by the virus,” says David.  “I was in complete denial – I had grown up watching my dad battle MS and my symptoms were not really the same so I just could not believe it.”

There are four variations on the aggressiveness and progression of MS disease, Alan’s was the primary progressive type, a diagnosis only 15 percent of all MS patients receive.  With primary progressive there are no flare-ups or periods of remission such as with David’s type of MS – which means for Alan it is supposed to be a slow degeneration of the body’s functions.

Originally, David’s devastation took on the typical reaction people have when faced with a difficult diagnosis:  “Why me?”  He relates how one day while in a wheelchair he watched his brother playing on the floor with his kids and wondered to himself, “Will I ever have that?”  You can hear the emotion in his voice as he continues, “I’m almost embarrassed to admit that is how I felt because when I looked from my brother and nieces and nephews to my dad and realized, here is this man who has lived with this disease for 20 years and he has never complained, I realized life can go on and you can find ways around this disease just like my dad did.”

“I have a motto I live by – you have to be TUFF,” says Alan.  “It stands for: Target what you need to do; Understand everything you can about the challenge in front of you; Focus on how to live with or beat that challenge; Fight, Fight, Fight – you have to have the drive and desire to keep living and keep fighting for yourself and those around you.”

Osmond father and son tackled MS the same way they approach the music business – all out or as Alan says “I may have MS but MS does not have me.”

“I was given a cortisone shot when I was first diagnosed in 1987,” says Alan, “and it just about killed me.  It was right then that I decided there has to be a better way and I started investigating alternative medicine that would not have the side effects of traditional drugs.”

Family and Faith

Both Osmonds have found ways to deal with MS and overcome many obstacles and the dire prognosis of their physicians.  David was able to get up and out of his wheelchair with powerful steroid shots that helped him walk down the aisle with his beautiful bride, Valerie, a few years ago.  “I proposed to her from my wheelchair and she said, ‘Yes!’ so being able to walk down the aisle with her was something I just knew I had to do.”  He has not been back in his wheelchair since and the couple now has two beautiful daughters, ages one and three.

Father and son embrace all-natural homeopathic remedies and David takes up to 50 all-natural supplements a day while Alan adds a daily dose of 2,000-5,000 IUs of Vitamin D; they believe in using essential oils, such as Frankincense, for aromatherapy and they follow a healthy diet based on gluten-free (wheat-based products) and casein-free (milk protein) foods with limited meat and other proteins.  The strict adherence to an all-natural diet which Alan blends into most of his meals has helped manage his MS symptoms and helped him lose 30 pounds.  Alan also enjoys hydro-exercise – the buoyancy of the water not only takes the pressure off of sometimes painful joints but also helps with balance while practicing movements.  In addition, both Alan and David avoid stimulants such as cigarettes, coffee or caffeinated sodas, which is part of their Church of Latter Day Saints faith, and they believe in the power of prayer and positive thinking.  If there is an Osmond prescription for helping to tame the symptoms of MS it is simply “family and faith.”

In fact, both Alan and David credit their wives, Suzanne and Valerie respectively, with the kind of unconditional love so essential in a spouse when someone is facing a chronic illness.  According to the National Health Institute Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, 75 percent of marriages among those couples dealing with a chronic illness end in divorce – 50 percent higher than the overall national divorce rate.

David and wife Valerie

David and wife Valerie

“There is a good side to every challenge in life,” says David.  “Sometimes dealing with something like multiple sclerosis can make your marriage better, I know both my wife and I have learned more patience with each other through this journey and I absolutely would not be where I am at today in conquering MS without her.”

Alan agrees that it was Suzanne who helped him seek the alternative remedies which have him defying all the odds with his prognosis.  All doctor predictions and prognosis pointed to Alan being in a wheelchair by now but instead Alan travels with Suzanne and is walking only occasionally using a leg brace or cart when he has to walk long distances.  Alan says, “It is not just one person who gets MS, it is the whole family.”  That is one of the reasons why Alan created his Web site, TheFamily, which addresses family issues around chronic illness and other life lessons.

Alan and David admit that they have learned a lot from each other through this journey with MS.  David says his dad has taught him to never feel sorry for himself, to embrace both the blessings and burdens in life with a positive attitude and to help as many people as you can with whatever you can.  Alan believes David has taught him what patience and perseverance are all about.

“I know it’s crazy to say, but it is actually a great time to have MS,” says David.  When his father was diagnosed more than 25 years ago, there were not a lot of options but today David, who sits on the board of the Nancy Davis Foundation for MS and attends her annual conferences for the foundation’s Center Without Walls says, “There are eight drugs on the market and several more being approved by the FDA as we speak.  The numerous choices we now have to attack this disease that is attacking our bodies – especially with the education about alternative, all-natural choices that I have made for my lifestyle – are encouraging.  I truly think we are going to lick this disease and the great research minds agree – they believe MS is one of the chronic illnesses that I may see a cure for in my lifetime.” (See more with David and other celebrities from the Nancy Davis Foundation for MS Race to Erase MS Event).

Alan with wife Suzanne

Alan with wife Suzanne

When I asked both Alan and David what are their private passions – both responded almost simultaneously with “spending time with family.”  While David enjoys sports like skiing even though his balance and agility are not what they used to be because of the MS, and Alan loves to continually learn new things and brainstorm on ideas – like teaching himself html code so he can build web sites – both men are happiest when surrounded by family.

As we wind up the interview, David is eager to get back to playing Legos and watching Disney movies with his two young daughters – a scene he was not sure he would have just a few years ago.  He says he wears a ring on his right hand that is engraved with ETTE – Endure To The End.  He says he has had the ring since before his MS diagnosis, so today he adds, “Endure to the end …of the day.”  With his girls calling for daddy from the other room, we say our “so longs” and I wish Alan happy birthday (June 22) and both men a happy Father’s Day.  I laugh as I later see a tweet from David – it says simply, “Going to make tshirts for my girls that say ‘Having MS gets on my dad’s nerves.’”

CastofCaregivers Cover FINALFind more inspirational celebrity caregiving stories and helpful information and resources in Sherri Snelling’s book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care.

©2015 Sherri Snelling

Marg Helgenberger Juggled College, Career and Caregiving

May marks National Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month and few celebrities are as passionate about raising awareness for this disease than the Emmy Award-winning actress Marg Helgenberger.  Marg cared for a father who was diagnosed with MS when she was still in college in her 20s. Today, there are more than 1.5 million children between the ages of 8-18 who are the primary caregivers for parents and grandparents with chronic illnesses.  A Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation study on high school drop-outs reported 1 in 4 left school because of their caregiving responsibilities.

Sherri Snelling spoke to Marg about how she has stepped into the spotlight as a champion for those living with MS, a disease which claimed her father’s life over 25 years ago when Marg was just starting her acting career.

Marg Helgenberger sounds as strong and in charge as she did playing Catherine Willows, the independent single mom and forensic crime scene analyst on CBS-TV’s top-rated drama series, CSI.  However, as we talk about her recent work to bring awareness and support to those suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS) and how this disease impacted her dad and her whole family, the vulnerability of youth and past painful memories resonates in the voice of this ageless actress.

The Age of Innocence


In the 1980s, Marg was still a college co-ed at Northwestern University with a future full of promise when she got the call that her father had a devastating chronic illness.  Marg thinks back about that day and the five years that her father struggled with MS.

“My dad was a young man when he was diagnosed with MS – he was so full of life and to see this disease overpower him in such a short time was really sad and devastating,” says Marg.

Marg grew up in America’s heartland, a small Nebraska town where fields, farms, family and friends abounded.  Her close knit clan included an older sister, her younger brother and her parents.  Her mom was a nurse and her dad, Hugh, owned a butcher shop.  At first, her father originally attributed the tingling and numbness in his arm to his physically intensive job lugging sides of beef around and constantly chopping and cutting – he thought he just had a pinched nerve.  However, as the symptoms progressed and persisted, he was eventually given the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) – and the prognosis could not have been worse as it was an extremely rare and progressive type of MS.

Multiple sclerosis is one of the numerous chronic illnesses for which there is still no cure, although according to the Nancy Davis Foundation recent research is encouraging.  Today, more than 400,000 people in the U.S. and 2.5 million people worldwide live with this insidious disease that attacks the central nervous system.

Essentially, the myelin, which is the protective covering for the nerve fibers in the central nervous system, become inflamed or damaged and through this inflammation the myelin becomes scarred, thus forming sclerotic patches.   These multiple scars or lesions cause interference with the transmission of signals to the brain and spinal cord that then cause the unpredictable and often debilitating symptoms that MS patients experience such as numbness or tingling in the extremities to periods of blindness and even full paralysis.


Twice as many women as men are diagnosed with MS, and it is typically uncovered when patients are 20-50 years old.  While researchers feel there may be genetic predictors for MS, there is no clear connection that one generation passes it to another.  In fact, research has not shown any significant findings on how and why certain people are afflicted with MS.  What they do know is that no two people experience MS in the same way – some patients may experience some or most of the symptoms and may have periods of full recovery.

However, because the disease is not curable, it is a progressive and degenerative disease of varying degrees.

Most patients fall into one of four categories:  1)  Relapsing/Remitting (the most common with 85 percent of MS patients in this category where you have flare-ups with periods of remission); 2)  Primary/Progressive (continuous worsening of the disease with no flare-ups or remissions); 3)  Secondary/Progressive (begins as relapsing/remitting but if untreated becomes primary/progressive); and 4)  Progressive/Relapsing (the most rare with continuous decline and increasingly intense flare-ups). Marg’s father had Progressive/Relapsing MS and was diagnosed when he was only 45 years old.

It Takes A Village

Marg remembers this time as very challenging for her family.   Her mom had just recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy when Marg was a junior in college.  Now just a year later, the family was hit by the news of her dad’s disease.  In the 1980s they did not have the therapies and medications for MS that they do today.  Marg remembers going with her mom and dad to the hospital where he would get corticosteroid shots that would leave him relieved from some of the pain but bloated, unable to sleep and miserable.

Marg at Northwestern graduation with mom and dad

Marg with her parents for her Northwestern University graduation


It was during this period that Marg decided she wanted to pursue an acting career and the Big Apple was where she had to be.  However, she says she felt guilty over not staying in Nebraska to help her mom care for her dad.  So often, family members in Marg’s position give up their dreams.  But, Marg’s parents were supportive of their daughter and encouraged the pursuit of her acting passion in New York.

As Marg’s career took off, she landed a key role on the TV soap opera, Ryan’s Hope, and began appearing on popular primetime TV shows like Spencer for Hire and China Beach.   Meanwhile her dad’s symptoms continued to worsen.  Originally he was able to get around with a cane but he quickly became wheelchair-bound and could no longer work.  Since her mom had to continue her job as a nurse to make ends meet, her father was often home alone.  One day his wheelchair got jammed as he tried to get around a hallway corner and he was stuck there for hours.  That is when the family hired a professional health care worker to provide home care for Marg’s dad while her mom was at work.  With money tight, Marg, her mother and her brother formed a caregiving tag team with her mom and brother performing the physical care and Marg providing a lot of the financial resources.  Marg also tried to get home as many weekends as her job would allow.

It was during this period that Marg said she really appreciated her small town, rural America upbringing.  The head of the local Jaycees (also known as the United States Junior Chamber), a civic organization for leadership training for those ages 18-41, contacted Marg and said they wanted to hold a fundraiser to buy a wheelchair-equipped van for her dad and family.  They were able to raise enough funds that Marg could match the amount they raised and they could purchase the vehicle.

“It really struck me as so sweet and that there is such a power of community when someone is in need,” says Marg.

It was this experience that planted the seed of inspiration in Marg to become a champion to help others.  While her acting career continued to soar with roles in TV (Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, The Tommyknockers) and films (Erin Brockovich, Mr. Brooks), she also became a passionate advocate for breast cancer awareness and fundraising, hosting an annual golf tournament in her home state to fund breast cancer treatments and research at the local Omaha hospital.

She told me that “not a day goes by that I don’t think about my dad,” and now her advocacy is bringing more awareness to finding a cure for MS.

“While I am so proud of the progress made in breast cancer treatments and the small role I could play in helping people, multiple sclerosis just doesn’t get the kind of attention as other diseases so I want to shine a spotlight on this disease which is so devastating for families,” says Marg.

Watch Sherri’s interview with Marg from the Race to Erase Event

Me catching up wth Marg Helgenberger

Me catching up wth Marg Helgenberge







Additional articles and blogs from Sherri Snelling about caring for those with multiple sclerosis, breast cancer and the impact of caregiving on America’s youth:

The Osmond Family’s Greatest Act – Winning the Daily Battle Against MS

Nancy Davis Races to Erase MS

Famous faces on breast cancer

Caregiver Weight Connected to Breast Cancer Risk

Caregiving’s Lost Generation: The Nation’s Children

This blog is adapted from Sherri Snelling’s book,  A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care.

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Snoopy to the Rescue – Pet Therapy Can Help Caregivers

snoopy-5366 dr free imageMy favorite cartoonist the late Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame wrote that, “Happiness is a warm puppy.” As we celebrate National Pet Week May 4-10, I wonder if Schulz knew that happiness is just the start when it comes to enhancing the lives of older loved ones in nursing homes or assisted living, terminal patients such as those suffering from cancer or AIDS, children with special needs and even caregivers looking to improve their own health.  Known as Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), there is a growing movement to increase animal/patient interactions for health and wellness benefits.

The notion of pet therapy all began in the 1860s although most of the studies were conducted in the 1980s.  While the medical community is still waiting for scientific data that shows pet therapy can have long-term or behavioral change benefits, even famous nurse Florence Nightingale recognized that animals provided a level of social support in the institutional care of the mentally ill over 150 years ago.  In an effort to prove the therapeutic benefits of pet therapy, the National Institute of Health has funded grants to study scientific evidence-based research in therapeutic effects on children.

You may have read about the dogs that can smell cancer in their owner long before a formal diagnosis is made, help calm children who have an epileptic seizure or even bring people out of comas.  One story from Pet Partners (formerly known as the Delta Society) is that they were called to visit a terminally ill patient.  When the handler arrived with her cat, the patient had slipped into a coma.  As the handler put the cat into the bed, the patient suddenly awoke, removed his arms from under the sheets and started to pet the cat.  I truly believe animals have special healing powers and a sixth sense.  To back up my notion, I read that Dr. Edward Creagan of the Mayo Clinic Medical School observed, “If pet ownership was a medication, it would be patented tomorrow.”

While dogs, cats and rabbits are most commonly used with older patients, dolphins and horses have also proved effective with children with mental health issues, epilepsy, physical disabilities or autism.  The biggest benefits of cozying up to a “warm puppy” are:


Older loved ones often feel isolated whether living alone at home or in a facility such as a nursing home or assisted living.  In fact, Human-Animal Interactions published a study of elderly dog owners revealing 75 percent of men and 67 percent of women considered their dog their only friend.  Some studies have found that just a few minutes a day petting or visiting with an animal lowers the stress hormone of cortisol and increases the feel-good hormone of serotonin. The results can range from lowered heart rates and blood pressure to decreased depression.  For older loved ones still living at home, if they can manage the daily needs of a pet (feeding, walking), some surveys have found that the interaction and companionship of a pet can improve your loved one’s health through increased physical activity and even lower pain levels in some arthritis patients.


Depression in older patients can be common, especially if they recently lost a spouse, received a terminal diagnosis or had to move from the comforts of home.  Pet therapy or even a new pet can provide unconditional love, comfort and helps reduce anxiety, particularly noted in nursing home patients.

Many assisted living facilities now have a Pet Care Coordinator to help seniors care for their own pet.  If an owner forgets to feed the pet or it becomes too difficult to walk them frequently, etc. the Pet Care Coordinator can help keep pets up-to-date on veterinary visits, grooming and vaccinations.   Silverado Senior Living which includes memory care facilities for Alzheimer’s and dementia care residents encourages pets in the facility – both privately owned pets and visits from pet therapy organizations. Pet therapy for those with Alzheimer’s or dementia has also proven to be a powerful tool for what is known as “sundowners,” the evening periods where patients become agitated or confused.

Animals have even proven to be valuable members of the hospice team for a terminally ill loved one.  There is a famous cat in Providence, Rhode Island known as Oscar who is one of the critical members of the hospice team in the local nursing home.  Patients and family members have reported that when Oscar would enter the room, there was a sense of calm—even though Oscar was known by residents as visiting a room when someone was dying.  As opposed to a bad omen, Oscar brought comfort and peace to both the patient and their family members.   Oscar stays with the patient, sitting quietly in their lap or on their bed where he remains until the loved one has passed.

For children with autism, pets can improve their communication skills, which can often be stressful.  Because animals are non-judgmental, special needs kids relax and are able to absorb other benefits during their pet therapy sessions.  Animals’ nonverbal communication and profound acceptance can be soothing for those with difficulty using language.   Hippotherapy, which is therapeutic horsebackriding, is practiced in 24 countries and benefits those with physical, psychological, cognitive, social, and behavioral problems.  In fact, the American Speech and Hearing Association now recognize hippotherapy as a treatment method for individuals with speech disorders.  While some benefit from the connection and the relationship built with the horse, other riders benefit physically from the movements that help build core strength, body awareness and muscle memory.

Pets can also benefit the caregivers.  Caregiving can make you feel like you are all alone.  While adding a pet to the list of loved ones you have to care for may seem like overload, having that happy face and wagging tail ready to give you some unconditional love when you return home can benefit caregivers as well.  Studies have found that caregivers are twice as likely as the general public to develop chronic illness due to the prolonged stress of caring for a loved one.  If having a pet can increase your exercise, lower your blood pressure and bring a smile to your face – maybe finding a Lassie, swimming with Flipper, holding Thumper or riding Mr. Ed is just what the doctor has ordered.

Following are organizations where you can find pet therapy handlers/animals or participate in caregiving pet events:

Pet Partners  (formerly Delta Society) Therapy Animal Program trains and screens volunteers with their pets so they can visit patients/clients in hospitals, nursing homes, hospice and physical therapy centers, schools, libraries and many other facilities. Over 10,000 handler/animal teams have been trained and accredited through Pet Partners.  The Pet Partners Service Animal Program provides information and resources for people with disabilities, as well as their friends and family, who are considering getting a service animal or who are currently partnered with a service animal.

Pets for the Elderly Foundation matches seniors with cats and dogs by underwriting the pets’ adoptions.

Therapy Dogs Inc. is a national registrar with a listing of more than 12,000 handler/dog teams in U.S. and Canada. The organization provides registration, support and insurance for volunteers who want to provide pet therapy services.

American Cancer Society Bark for Life is a fundraising event that honors the caregiving qualities of our canine best friends. Canine caregivers are canine companions, guide dogs, service dogs, rescue dogs, therapy dogs, police dogs, cancer survivor dogs and diagnostic dogs who, with their owners, are joining the American Cancer Society as relay teams and participants.

Numerous organizations in local communities, including Pet Therapy, a non-profit organization in Southwest Florida bring pets into nursing homes for weekly visits with puppies and dogs brought by adult and even child volunteers.

Read more about pet therapy from Sherri Snelling’s blogs and articles:

New study on dogs helping dementia patients

Healing Power of Pet Therapy

You can find more information in Sherri Snelling’s book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care

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