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


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

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.

CastofCaregivers Cover FINAL


Holly Robinson Peete – Superstar Sandwich Generation Caregiver

As we commemorate National Parkinson’s Disease Awareness and National Autism Awareness this month, our CEO Sherri Snelling interviewed Holly Robinson Peete, TV star, singer, author and co-founder with her husband, NFL star Rodney Peete, of the HollyRod Foundation which helps families of those with Parkinson’s disease and autism.  These are two health issues Holly knows well – her father suffered from Parkinson’s and her oldest son, RJ, is living with autism.  This Super Sandwich Generation caregiving star, talked to Sherri about getting rid of guilt, keeping her marriage in play and leading Team Peete to help others.

Holly R Peete Parkinsons and Autism

When it comes to superstars in this game we call life, Holly Robinson Peete is a top draft pick.  An actress, talk show host, singer, author, passionate advocate, wife and mother, Holly appears to have that perfect existence.  But, even the most perfect pearls are formed by being tossed about in rough seas.

Holly’s perfect life has faced two unforeseen and often devastating blows.  While juggling a thriving acting career, marriage and motherhood, she was also caring long distance for her father who suffered with Parkinson’s disease and simultaneously learned that one of her twins had autism.

The Sandwich Generation of family caregivers – more than 24 million strong according to the National Alliance for Caregiving – is defined as someone who is sandwiched between generational care, caring for a child or children still at home while also providing assistance or full-time care to an older parent.  In Holly’s case, she is Super Sandwich Generation: dealing with a father with a progressive disease of the central nervous system, and raising twins, one who was healthy and active (her daughter Ryan), and the other (son RJ), who was withdrawn and showing the symptoms of a special needs child.

For some people, this double hit would be enough to bring you down before the game even gets started.  But, for Holly Robinson Peete, she learned to fight through to get to the goal line.

From Sesame Street to 21 Jump Street

It was in the 1980s when Holly was still in college at Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, New York, that her father started showing the early signs of what would be eventually diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease.  He was only 46 years old.

ALotOfHotWaterGordon Sesame StreetHer father, Matthew T. Robinson, Jr. was a producer and also played “Gordon” on the award-winning PBS-TV children’s program Sesame Street in the 1960s and 70s.  In the late 70s and 80s he went on to become one of the most prolific TV screenwriters for shows such as the wildly popular, The Cosby Show.  Just as her father thrived in TV, Holly came by the acting gene naturally.  In the 1980s and 90s, she decided to give acting a go and was riding high on a career that saw her become a breakout TV star on 21 Jump Street alongside a then unknown Johnny Depp followed by her star turn on Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper.  During this time, since Holly’s parents were divorced, it was up to Holly and her brother to support their father as his disease progressed.

It is estimated that one million people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD) and each year there are 60,000 new cases in U.S.  This neurodegenerative brain disorder is characterized by a progressive destruction of cells in the central nervous system that reduces supply of dopamine causing nerve cells to fire incorrectly and causing patients to lose control of their normal body movements. While later stages of the disease are devastating, early warning signs can be subtle and progress gradually.  Not every PD patient has the same symptoms. Some experience poor balance and frequent falls, rigidity or muscle stiffness, tremors, and Bradykinesia which is the slowing down or loss of movement (shuffling steps, loss of one arm swing when walking, and difficulty or inability to turn the body).  The most high profile people living with PD today are the actor Michael J. Fox and former world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali.

“My first reaction to my dad’s diagnosis was ‘what is Parkinson’s’?” says Holly.  As a young college student she raced to the library to find out everything she could about the disease. “I saw two words in the books I read:  neurological and incurable.  I felt helpless and in a dark place and it was hard, this was in a pre-Google period and there was no Michael J. Fox or Muhammad Ali who had raised awareness about Parkinson’s.”

Double Dose of Devastation

While still providing care to her dad, Holly’s career was taking off and so was her love life.  She had fallen for Rodney Peete who had been a superstar college football player at USC and one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks with a 16-year career playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers.  They were married in 1995 and two years later Holly was a sought-after actress, NFL wife and new mom to fraternal twins Rodney Jackson and Ryan Elizabeth.

It was at this exciting time for Holly, that life gave her two blows.  Her father’s illness was progressing to a point where he needed around the clock care and Holly and her brother decided he needed to live in a special care facility.   Since Holly lived in Los Angeles and her father was in New York, this made Holly one of the eight million long-distance caregivers.

“The day we moved my dad into the facility was singlehandedly the worst day of my life, to this day I still have regrets about the decision but there really were not a lot of choices,” says Holly with the pain still evident in her voice even though this was almost 10 years ago.  She had her twins, a husband who was on the road for six months out of the year and she was pregnant again.  “The guilt has never really gone away but I don’t hold myself accountable anymore – it was a hard choice but really the only choice.”

cover of autism file magazine Apr 2012It was during this painful period in Holly’s life that her three-year-old son, RJ, was given a devastating diagnosis:  autism.

“I know it’s a cliché but when we were told about RJ, my life just stopped right there in that doctor’s office,” says Holly.  “I call that day the never day – we were told all the things my beautiful baby boy would never do and at first I felt 10 times more than hopeless.”

Holly recalls how the diagnosis of her son was very different from learning about her dad’s disease.  “Even though my dad was young when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, it was totally different to hear that your three-year-old child will never really do anything normal.”

Mars v. Venus

What happened next came out of left field for Holly.  Her husband Rodney had been “my rock while I cared for my dad,” always there to support his wife and the father-in-law who adored him.  But, suddenly with RJ’s diagnosis, Rodney became withdrawn, frustrated and definitely living in denial.

“This was the classic men are from Mars, women are from Venus scenario,” says Holly.  “Men and women just think and do things differently.”

Initially, Rodney was in denial about RJ and as is typical of fathers of special needs children, he distanced himself and was less involved in the daily struggle in part because he was still playing in the NFL which kept him on the road for months.  While it is estimated that 85 percent of parents with special needs children divorce, Holly actually thinks the distance saved their marriage.  “It gave me time to cope on my own without facing Rodney’s different attitude and ideas about RJ,” says Holly.  “Rodney originally thought RJ just needed more discipline, I knew it wasn’t about that at all.”

While Rodney retreated, Holly got to work.  She learned everything she could about autism in the same way she had educated herself about Parkinson’s disease.  Holly learned that autism impairs a person’s ability to communicate and socialize normally with others and often has a physical manifestation of repetitive behaviors.  Statistics showed that one in every 110 children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and symptoms can be subtle or significant.  She also learned that there is no cure for autism.

Given little hope by doctors for RJ’s ability to assimilate into normal childhood, Holly refused this dismal outlook for her son and turned to alternative measures.  She found a wonderful autism therapist, she established a gluten-free diet for RJ which had some very positive effects and she brought music into his life which she found soothed her son.  When RJ recorded his first music single, Holly believes it was a way for him to not feel “judged” as he often did during sports or other activities.  She also maintained as normal a life as possible for her other children, which in addition to RJ’s twin sister Ryan now included sons Robinson and Roman.

During this time, Rodney and Holly admit to a lot of foul plays with each other.  In reflection, Holly says, “I wish I had been more patient with Rodney and respectful of his denial but I was too focused on RJ.”  She credits Rodney for coming up with the winning game plan.

“Rodney had that ‘oh my god’ moment when he realized he could lose his family but he chose instead to enter into the fight and save us all.”  Holly said when she and Rodney got the same game plan going, everything changed.  Just a few weeks ago on Valentine’s Day, Holly and Rodney renewed their marriage vows with all four children as their attendants.

Team Peete Scores

Rodney credits an autism father support group with helping him understand that instead of being dismayed with RJ’s inability to operate in Rodney’s world, Rodney learned to enter RJ’s world.  The result was Rodney’s 2011 book, Not My Boy! A Dad’s Journey with Autism, which he hopes will help other fathers of special needs children who are struggling to understand their situation and create a “new normal.”

Holly co-authored a book for Scholastic with her daughter Ryan who wanted to help other kids learn about her brother’s autism.  The book, My Brother Charlie, gave Ryan a hero’s role in her brother’s daily challenges and won an NAACP Image Award.  And, together Holly and Rodney have built the HollyRod Foundation, originally created to support families facing Parkinson’s to honor her father now expanded to also help families living with autism in recognition of the lessons the Peetes have learned from RJ.

Her relief from the guilt she says is inevitable for all caregivers comes from the impact of the HollyRod Foundation that helps families just like her family needed answers and hope.  “At some point, you take your guilt and you move on and I did that by paying it forward,” says Holly.  “Knowing that my family can help others and maybe ease their caregiving journey is the best gift of all.”

Spoken like a true superstar.

 GROUP4660RT Peete family portrait

Photo:  Christopher Voelker

Read Sherri’s book which includes more of the interview with Holly Robinson Peete, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care. My person note on Holly – since I interviewed her in 2012 we have stayed in touch and Holly continues to be a passionate advocate for caregivers. I was proud to share the stage with her last fall where we both spoke about caregiving to a crowd of 500 in Chicago.

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©2015 Sherri Snelling

Cat in the Hat Creator a Caregiver, Too! Who Knew?

Happy Bday Dr Seuss

Who Reads?  We Read!

On March 2 every year, we celebrate Read Across America Day, the reading initiative started by the National Education Association in commemoration of the birthday of our beloved children’s book author, Dr. Seuss (whose real name was Theodor Geisel). Some of his most widely published children’s books included:  The Cat in the Hat; Horton Hears a Who!; Green Eggs and Ham; One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish; and my favorite, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Dr Seuss wife HelenWho Cares?  He Cared!

What is perhaps the least known about Dr. Seuss is that he was a caregiver for his first wife, Helen Palmer Geisel, who was also a children’s book author.  For several years during perhaps his most productive writing phase, Helen, suffered from several chronic illnesses including battling cancer.  While Helen helped guide Theodor’s talents of his whimsical drawings of animals and the telling of their stories, Geisel gave his muse the love and care she needed throughout their marriage until her death in 1967.

In the years Geisel cared for his ill wife, there was not much recognition of the role of the spousal caregiver and even less support, especially for men who were caregivers. Since the Geisels did not have children, Geisel was primary caregiver for his wife during those years.

man and womanMen As Caregivers

In a 2009 study, Caregiving in the U.S., published by the National Alliance for Caregiving, at that time men made up about one-third of all caregivers.  However, a 2012 Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project reports men now comprise 45 percent of all family caregivers in the nation. And, according to a study by the Alzheimer’s Association, men caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia almost doubled from 19 percent to 40 percent from 1996 to 2011.

Often men’s caregiving duties are to handle the financial and legal paperwork, medical insurance and home safety modifications for an older parent.  But, when it is spousal caregiving, as it was with Dr. Seuss, the caregiving duties can be all-encompassing.

And the emotional impact of caregiving hits men as much as women.

In the book, Who Says Men Don’t Care – A Man’s Guide to Balanced and Guilt-Free Caregiving, authors James V. Gambone and Rhonda Travland help men identify their caregiving style.  The authors looked at four generations of men as well as male personality differences and identified the following caregiving styles:   the Manager, the Searcher, the Loner, and the Techno-Virtual Caregiver. According to the authors, one issue for men is having a harder time asking for help.

“While all caregivers face stress and frustration, we found that men often have a harder time dealing with a caregiver role,” says Travland.  “It’s very difficult for them to ask for help.”

While they may not seek help as readily as female caregivers, a 2012 study conducted by researchers at Bowling Green State University shows men may cope with caregiver stress better than women.  The study looked at the differences in male and female caregivers of an older parent and how they dealt with stress.

Photo: DavidLee/Dreamstime

Photo: DavidLee/Dreamstime

“We found men seem better at dealing with caregiver stress because they take a ‘block and tackle’ approach to caregiving tasks,” says I-Fen Lin, associate professor and lead researcher on the study. “They complete a caregiving task and move on to the next thing. Conversely we found women are more socialized to be nurturing but they internalize their caregiving performance with constant worry and anxiety, thus, leading to higher stress levels and more persistent stress.”

During Geisel’s caregiving years support groups for caregivers were virtually non-existent. In today’s world, whether in-person support or virtual online support is a growing area of the caregiving world. Homewatch CareGivers, a comprehensive home care agency founded in 1980, created what it’s billing as the first online community for male caregivers.  The online forum provides male caregivers with crucial caregiving information from peers such as how to deal with sundowning of an Alzheimer’s loved one, how to bathe a parent of the opposite sex or what advice veteran caregivers have for a new caregiver.  According to the site, men are more likely to use the internet to seek information and support but less likely than women to seek caregiving training which makes the forum a vital resource for men who are caregiving.

When it comes to caregiving, we all have to find ways to get support so we can continue to have balance in our lives – whether it is writing a book, coaching a soccer team or working at a demanding job.  While Dr. Seuss wrote for children, his lessons on life impact all ages. These words from our beloved Dr. Seuss should help caregivers to feel empowered to find that balance and remember that their own health and wellness is in their hands and their hearts:

Dr Seuss Brains in My Head



CastofCaregivers Cover FINALTo read more about men as caregivers and resources that can help, get Sherri Snelling’s book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care.

You can also read Sherri’s other blogs about men as caregivers:

Billionaire caregiver David Murdock, CEO of Dole

Famous men of caregiving

Increase of men as caregivers





©2015 Sherri Snelling

Caregiving Goes to the Oscars

Photo: JamesSteidl/Dreamstime

Photo: JamesSteidl/Dreamstime

What do the Oscars and caregiving have in common? Quite a bit…read below for the articles about recent movies that have engaged our caregiving emotions and the Oscar winners who have been real-life caregivers.


Movies that teach us about caregiving

Still Alice Julianne MooreStill Alice – the movie that may spark the Alzheimer’s movement

1st Annual Caregiving Goes to the Oscars (2012)

2nd Annual Caregiving Goes to the Oscars (2013)

Amour – A Caregiving Movie Review

And the Oscar Goes to Caregivers

Oscar winners who are or have been real-life caregivers

Photo: CelebrityPhotos/Dreamstime

Photo: CelebrityPhotos/Dreamstime

Catherine Zeta-Jones won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in 2002’s Chicago.  Here is our interview with her about dealing with her mental health issues while caregiving for another Oscar winner – her husband Michael Douglas who battled throat cancer.

Catherine Zeta Jones – a caregiver’s self-care mental health plan

Photo: Creative Commons

Photo: Creative Commons

Diane Keaton won her Best Actress Oscar for her performance in 1977’s Annie Hall, playing the title character. In real life Keaton was a sandwich generation caregiver – caring for a mother with dementia while raising two children.

Diane Keaton – Sandwich Generation caregiver

Photo: Courtesy of Campbell Family

Photo: Courtesy of Campbell Family

When Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011 his family including his wife Kim and daughter Ashley did not know what was in store for them as his future caregivers but as a family they made one last farewell tour with the music legend.  Nominated for best song at this year’s Oscars for “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” the Rhinestone Cowboy’s story still touches our hearts.

Glen Campbell’s Farewell Tour

Photo: ImageCollect/Dreamstime

Photo: ImageCollect/Dreamstime

While Glenn Close has not yet won an Oscar, she has been nominated six times including for 1988’s Fatal Attraction playing a woman who had mental instability. The role hits close to home as Glenn has played real life caregiver to her sister who has mental illness.

Glenn Close wants to change your mind about mental illness

Photo: CelebrityPhotos/Dreamstime

Photo: CelebrityPhotos/Dreamstime

Jodie Foster has won two Oscars – one for The Accused and the other for Silence of the Lambs. But it wasn’t until she was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes in 2013 that we learned she was also a sandwich generation caregiver for her mom with dementia.

Jodie Foster – Golden Girl Shines a Spotlight on Her Sandwich Generation Role

Photo: ImageCollect/Dreamstime

Photo: ImageCollect/Dreamstime

Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in Walk the Line. But it was running not walking that brought Witherspoon face to face with a big caregiver dilemma – an older driver who had lost control of the vehicle. Read Witherspoon’s understanding story of the incident:

Reese Witherspoon Forgives Senior Driver in Recent Accident

A Football Wife Helps the NFL Tackle Dementia

Football 50 yard line dreamstime_m_15024968 (2)As the New England Patriots celebrate their glory as victors in the Super Bowl this Sunday, another NFL victory took place off the gridiron several years ago and was led by a warrior woman.

Her name is Sylvia Mackey, wife of NFL Hall of Fame and 1971 Super Bowl hero John Mackey of the Baltimore Colts. Their love story is about football, courage, overcoming all obstacles and fighting for support of those afflicted with neurological challenges. Following is an excerpt from my book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care, where I interviewed Sylvia about her story and how she changed the game for the NFL.

For Love of the Game…and the Man

When it comes to the gladiators of the gridiron, he was the Charlton Heston or Russell Crowe of his day.  But in the end, it would be his wife – on the sidelines of his entire career – who would become the warrior at the center of the action.  When John Mackey, No. 88, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992, he was only the second tight end to receive the honor.  He was and still is considered one of the best tight ends to ever take the field.  In fact, Mike Ditka, himself a Hall of Fame player and the first “pure” tight end to be inducted into that rare club of exceptional players, statjohn-mackey nfl baltimore colts from WebAs a Baltimore Colt, where he played all but the last year of his career, John scored one of the most famous plays in the NFL championship history.  It was Super Bowl V played in 1971, when John caught the nail-biting pass from the quarterback Johnny Unitas that first careened off the hands of the opposite team’s player, grazed the fingertips of his teammate and finally wound up safely in the arms of John who then ran it for a then-record 75-yard touchdown.  It was this decisive play that helped the Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys and won John his coveted Super Bowl ring.

Twenty-one years later, as John took his place in football’s pantheon of great players for his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, right by his side was the woman who had been in the same spot since his college playing days, his wife, Sylvia.  Theirs would prove to be a true love story, challenged only by a devastating medical diagnosis.

Little did either John or Sylvia know that day in 1992 that 14 years later, John’s toughtest battles would be fought off the football field with his lovely wife serving as both tackler and blocker.  At age 65 John Mackey was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a degenerative disease caused by the rapid deterioration of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.

Tackling Dementia

What makes Sylvia’s story one of inspiration is this diagnosis could have sacked her (in football jargon) but instead she did not let this devastating news knock her down.  One incident that highlights the special challenges dementia caregivers face was played out at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport.

“John and I were on our way to an autograph signing – we never missed one and I was determined this was something we were going to continue to do – it always made John happier as we got ready for these annual trips,” says Sylvia.

JohnandSylviaMackey (2)But this year was different.  There was an incident with the TSA airport security that almost took them both down – literally.  Her husband, proudly wearing his Super Bowl ring and trademark cowboy hat (hallmark of his Super Bowl win over the Dallas Cowboys), refused to remove these items and place them on the conveyor belt to be scanned.  In his mind, he did not understand there had been a 9/11, he did not understand why they did not recognize him, and ultimately he thought they were trying to rob him of his precious possessions.

As John grew more frustrated with the TSA agents who, unaware of his diagnosis, thought he was just being a belligerent traveler, the agents grew increasingly irritated and finally tackled him but not after chasing the six-foot two-inch 220-pound former football player who dragged the agents several feet through the airport until several more agents joined in, handcuffed him.

While a tearful and frightened Sylvia explained to the agents and curious onlookers her husband was the NFL great and one of Baltimore’s favorite sons, John Mackey, and that his illness meant he had no ability to understand what was happening, she ultimately convinced the agents to call an ambulance and they took him off to a local hospital. She collapsed while they dragged her confused husband away, and thought to herself, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore.”

Hemingway wrote, “Courage is grace under fire.” 

When Sylvia caught up with her husband at the hospital, John was back to his typical, jovial, social self – signing autographs for many of the doctors and nurses who recognized the NFL great.  It was at this moment as her husband basked in the bright light of his fame, she realized she could not give up on her husband or herself.  That is when her courage took flight.

Instead of deciding that attending future autograph signings or Super Bowls would be out of the question, Sylvia got to work contacting the head of TSA at Baltimore/Washington International.  She explained her situation and asked for his help to allow her husband to travel – especially to the sporting events and autograph signings he truly lived for and were important to maintaining some type of normalcy in their lives.

The TSA executive designed a plan with Sylvia to have John brought through a private area where they could scan him without incident and without his having to remove the items precious to him.   In addition, the TSA executive also would contact the TSA executive at the arrival airport to explain how similar treatment of John upon his return flight out of their airport would be helpful to avoid any similar, dramatic incidents that neither party wanted.

Now before you think these special plans are just for those with famous last names – this is a lesson learned for all caregivers from Sylvia’s story. If you plan ahead, you can use Sylvia’s travel strategy to continue to travel – most airports will work with caregivers on the special travel needs of their loved one.

The Final Play

Sylvia Mackey bio photoSadly, John Mackey lost his battle with dementia and passed away in 2011.  A few years ago before losing her husband, Sylvia had written a passionate letter to then NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue asking for more support for retired players when it comes to their long-term care (LTC).  In his decade-long career, Mackey made about $500,000 – a salary many back-up players make in one season today.  The health benefits plan was championed by current Commissioner Roger Goddell and was adopted by the NFL in 2007.  The NFL named it the 88 Plan, to honor Mackey’s jersey number.  The plan provides retired players suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, ALS or Parkinson’s disease with $100,000 annually for long-term care or adult day care or $88,000 annually to secure care at home.

Today, Sylvia is a board member of the Association of Frontotemporal Degeneration (AFTD) and speaks to caregivers across the country about the impact of dementia on families.

This is an excerpt on Sylvia Mackey’s story from Sherri Snelling’s book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online and local booksellers. 

CastofCaregivers Cover FINAL

Still Alice May Be the Movie That Sparks the Alzheimer’s Movement

This article was originally published on PBS Next Avenue

Still Alice Julianne MooreWhile Julianne Moore can start clearing space on her mantel for that best actress golden Oscar statuette, it is the troupe of passionate players at the heart of this story – an author, writers, producers, directors, actors and advocates – who brought Still Alice to the big screen and who also deserve the accolades.

Julianne’s tour de force performance in the role of a lifetime as a woman with early on-set Alzheimer’s disease, was made possible because a group of people were committed to showing the world what Alzheimer’s feels like for the 5.4 million Americans diagnosed today.

The “behind-the-scenes” story is how Still Alice just may be the little movie that ignites a big movement on how we view people with cognitive impairment and neurodegenerative diseases and propels Alzheimer’s onto the same stage of awareness and support as AIDS, cancer and heart disease.

The back-story begins in 1998 as Lisa Genova, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist with a grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, discovers that almost all the literature about dementia only looks at Alzheimer’s from the outside in, the perspectives all those of clinicians, researchers and family caregivers instead of the actual people diagnosed with the disease.

“What really drove the inspiration for the book was asking myself ‘what does Alzheimer’s feel like’ and not being able to find the answer in any literature – scientific or otherwise,” Genova told me during our hour-long phone interview. “Somehow I felt I had to write this story and in doing so it would keep me connected to my grandma.”

It took a few years and rejection from all the publishers she approached for Genova to bring her novel approach of telling the “inside out” story of Alzheimer’s to the printed page. Not deterred by publishers’ claims that a novel about Alzheimer’s was too limited, fearful and depressing, Genova self-published Still Alice in 2007 finally letting readers into the mind, heart and daily experiences of 51-year-old Alice. While the novel is about walking in Alice’s shoes, Genova also realistically portrayed the family’s experience with an understanding that the Alzheimer’s diagnosis affects more than just the person with the disease.

Read other Alzheimer’s caregiving books recommended by Caregiving Club

From Book to Screen 

Flash forward to an Alzheimer’s Association advocacy event in Washington, D.C. where Hollywood insider and Alzheimer’s caregiver and advocate, Elizabeth Gelfand-Stearns, listens to Genova, whose book has caught fire within the Alzheimer’s community and has hit the New York Times best-seller list, read a moving passage from Still Alice.

It struck a chord with Gelfand-Stearns, who had a maternal grandmother and a mother with Alzheimer’s. Along with her father and family, Gelfand-Stearns had created The Judy Fund, to honor her mother who was diagnosed with the disease at age 62, considered early-onset. The combination of telling a story of Alzheimer’s for the first time from the perspective of the person diagnosed AND showcasing that Alzheimer’s is not always about being age 80 and laying helpless in a nursing home – it can strike in your 40s, 50s, 60s – was all Gelfand-Stearns needed to start looking for a way to bring the book to the screen.

The Judy Fund Event (L to R): Sherri Snelling, Caregiving Club; Dr. Maria Carillo, National Alzheimer's Association; Elizabeth Gelfand-Stearns, The Judy Fund; Dr. Jill Kalman, Mt. Sinai Medical Center New York

The Judy Fund Event (L to R): Sherri Snelling, Caregiving Club; Dr. Maria Carillo, National Alzheimer’s Association; Elizabeth Gelfand-Stearns, The Judy Fund; Dr. Jill Kalman, Mt. Sinai Medical Center New York

“I just knew so many people, especially women who are disproportionately affected by Alzheimer’s, would recognize themselves in Alice,” Gelfand-Stearns told me. “This story was the opposite of the typical response to Alzheimer’s – to push it away and not think about it because ‘I’ll worry about it when I’m 80.’ This was the OMG moment when I realized everyone can see themselves in Alice – an accomplished, successful professor, wife and mother in her 50s. If Alice can have it, so could I, or my sister, or my friend.”

Read Sherri Snelling’s PBS Next Avenue article on how Alzheimer’s Impacts Women the Most

Gelfand-Stearns says the reality is Alzheimer’s is the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S. and the only disease in the Top 10 which has no cure and no survivors. This is our society’s next big epidemic and it’s important to not delay what we know is coming – a rising tide of aging people who will have dementia yet no hope to slow the progression or cure the affects.

Together with her producing and advocacy partner, Maria Shriver (the poster woman for the toll on families dealing with Alzheimer’s, her father Sargent Shriver died from the disease) Gelfand-Stearns helped shepherd the book to its big screen debut collecting various co-producing partners. The wish became reality when Julianne Moore signed on to play the titular character, Alice, and convinced her fellow cast to sign up for well-below their star status asking prices, including Alec Baldwin as Alice’s husband and young sensation Kristen Stewart as the eventual caregiving daughter, Lydia.

Moore, whose acting skills are matched by her exhaustive character research, insisted on spending four months talking to early on-set Alzheimer’s patients, their family caregivers, researchers, doctors and long term care agencies in order to fully embrace and immerse herself in the Alzheimer’s experience and to present the story of how it feels to day-by-day lose your memory, your independence, your life.

“I need to see it for myself to authentically play it,” Moore told Gelfand-Stearns. Moore became especially close to one woman, Sandy, who was diagnosed at age 45, even younger than the fictional Alice. Moore related that Sandy would have days where she could remember and function almost normally, and then there would be days where things in her brain were lost. What moved Moore is while Alzheimer’s was erasing a patient’s memories and daily abilities, the personality and essence of who this person is remained. It is the realization that Alzheimer’s patients do not disappear, that Moore has said in numerous interviews, is what interested her in doing the movie.

Still Alice movie poster

Rounding out this passionate group are screenwriters and directing partners, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Right before filming began, Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS, different from Alzheimer’s but still a progressive neurodegenerative disease. His understanding of how your life is slowly slipping away from your control brought a nuanced touch to the movie and inspired the cast and crew that life and your life’s passion can continue. During production, unable to speak, Glatzer would direct the actors via an iPad.

All involved with the movie are hopeful this becomes the defining moment when society, our government agencies and legislators realize we can no longer dismiss or ignore the impact of dementia.

“It’s easy for the world to ignore the elderly,” Genova tells me. “People don’t typically rally around an 80-year-old with Alzheimer’s, it’s sad and heartbreaking but it does not create a movement. But it’s almost impossible to ignore someone in their 50s with this disease.”

Genova believes this is why the vast moviegoing public may make Still Alice a rallying cry and help to erase the stigma of this disease which has lived in the shadows for too long  (just think of what Philadelphia did to ignite support for those with AIDS and HIV).

Gelfand-Stearns said many years ago we never said the word “cancer,” it was called the “Big C” because people were afraid and it was a death sentence. Then in the ‘80s and ‘90s AIDS and HIV was stigmatized and seen as only affecting a certain part of the population until Hollywood got behind the movement and gained Washington, D.C.’s attention.

Today, with treatments such as mammograms and AZT and society’s support with walks and ribbons, and the federal funding needed – these diseases can claim survivors and the stigma is non-existent. Gelfand-Stearns is hoping Still Alice and the campaign she is launching with Maria Shriver and the Alzheimer’s Association, My Brain, will have the same results. The campaign strives to have people use their brains in combating this disease and to understand that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, which on average is around age 72, means the person has actually been living with the beginnings stages of the disease for 15-20 years.

Alz Assoc My Brain Campaign Celeb Poster

“My wish is that Julianne wins the Oscar, making everyone want to see this film which will lead to showing people the humanity, love and dignity of Alzheimer’s patients,” an emotional Genova told me. “If my book and this movie can be a cause for the call to action, what could be better than that?”

©2015 Sherri Snelling

The Wish to Have Death with Dignity

brittany-maynard-1-435The physician-assisted end-of-life debate received a jolt the last few weeks as an unlikely heroine for the Death With Dignity movement emerged in the 29-year-old terminally ill brain cancer patient Brittany Maynard. Given the choice of a painful death where her seizures will multiply, intensify and last longer, her memory loss will become permanent and her excruciating headaches will rob of her of any peaceful, pain-free moments, Maynard chose to end her life her way. Along with her newlywed husband and her mother and stepfather, Maynard moved this summer from Northern California to Portland, Oregon, one of only four states where adults with terminal diagnoses can legally determine when and how they will die.

The death with dignity movement began back in the early ‘90s in Oregon when a ballot measure passed and eventually became law in 1997. The definition of death with dignity is that mentally competent adults who have a terminal illness may request a doctor prescription for life-ending medication that will be self-administered.  It was around this same time that Jack Kervorkian became a lightning rod for the controversial act of euthanasia where in his estimation he helped 130 people in physician-assisted suicide.  To date, Oregon, Montana, Washington and Vermont have state laws protecting death with dignity decisions and legally allowing participating physicians to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminal patients for self-administration.  New Mexico courts have upheld cases although appeals are in progress and several other states have pending death with dignity legislation including Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Pennsylvania and a measure is set to be introduced in Colorado in January.

Over the last 20 years, national Gallup polls have shown the majority of Americans – 70 percent – support death with dignity rights for individuals. And while end-of-life conversations are difficult, especially for adult children serving as family caregivers for their older parents, a Pew Research study found 35 percent of Americans have actually put their wishes in writing.

In order to ensure wishes are carried out, it is not just enough to discuss it with family. Having a legally binding document, typically a living will, durable power of attorney for medical decisions and a do not resuscitate (DNR) or do not intubate (DNI) order documents are required. One document that is lesser known but extremely powerful and helpful to caregivers is called The 5 Wishes. More than 18 million Americans have created a 5 Wishes document that meets legal requirements as a living will in 42 states. The document outlines: 1) Who you want to make your health care decisions if you are unable; 2) The type of medical treatment you want or don’t want; 3) How comfortable you want to be; 4) How you want people to treat you; 5) What you want your loved ones to know.

Trends in health care show as a nation we are learning how to die with dignity. With the increase in hospice care at home or in long-term care facilities, more than half of the 2.5 million people who die every year can receive compassionate care where a team of health care and spiritual experts help the patient and family members cope with end of life. But that does not mean end-of-life wishes are overlooked in the hospital setting where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report one-third of all deaths occur.

In May, several Los Angeles area hospitals and health care providers endorsed some groundbreaking guidelines on how to facilitate patient end-of-life wishes. The coalition included: Cedars Sinai Hospital, Healthcare Partners Medical Group, Kaiser Permanente Southern California, Keck Medicine of USC, Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, Memorial Care Health System, Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center Torrance, Providence Trinity Care Hospice and UCLA Health System.  The guidelines require doctors, normally only schooled in saving lives, to explain clearly to patients when a medical treatment under consideration, such as feeding tubes, intubation or dialysis may deprive the person of life closure or preclude a peaceful death. The guidelines are the compassionate care California health care organizations are striving to achieve where patients have the chance to say to a loved one, “I love you,” “Forgive me,” or “Good-bye” one last time.

When Maynard’s April YouTube video about ending her life on her terms went viral and recently surpassed 9 million views, it was because a youthful, vibrant, newly married woman was deciding how her life would soon end.  But dying at 29 or 99 should be the same. Maynard said at the time, “I had no choice to be diagnosed with a brain tumor but I can make a choice how I spend my last day.” For Maynard that means spending it surrounded by family in her bed at home and free of terrible pain. She was upset that people would see her choice as suicide calling that label for her situation “really unfair.”

For the person with the diagnosis, the dilemma is how not to have death affect loved ones in devastating ways. Maynard’s argument for choosing death with dignity is to spare her husband and parents the struggle of watching her in pain, losing her quality of life day by day, hour by hour.

Although Maynard released a second video last week explaining that while her health continues its rapid decline, she can still smile and laugh with family and friends and that she may let the November 1 chosen date pass, as I write this article the news reports Maynard has in fact taken her last breath in the arms of her husband and mother.

Maynard’s mother, Debbie Ziegler, had said she would be “honored” to become a caregiver for her adult daughter as she loses her faculties. Ziegler would have lovingly bathed, fed and diapered her adult daughter as she had when she was a child. But in the end, Maynard’s mother said the decision is her daughter’s.

“It’s not my job to tell her how to live and it’s not my job to tell her how to die,” said Ziegler on the video.  “It is my job to love her through it.”

It is this gift of choice about how and when we will die that may be most precious to all of us and the gift which family caregivers can become the partner in fulfilling.


Joan Lunden – Breast Cancer Warrior on Caregiving Legacies

This article originally appeared on Next Avenue

When she stepped out onto the stage at a recent AARP convention, Joan Lunden looked as sunny and radiant as she always has as a 17-year co-host on “Good Morning America” in the ‘80s and ‘90s and more recently as the healthy living guru and businesswoman who inspires everyone she touches.

She came to talk to the gathered baby boomer and beyond crowd about caregiving – a role she had played with her mother whom she lost in 2013. But with bright eyes and a perfectly coifed hairstyle, Lunden said she wanted first to address “the elephant in the room.” A month earlier, Lunden, age 64, had gone public with the news that she was one of the 232,670 new cases of breast cancer among women in the U.S.  She announced she had just finished 12 weeks of chemotherapy and would enter another round of the cancer-killing therapy in a couple of weeks. As she smiled at the supportive crowd, she seemed strong and vulnerable at the same time.

Lunden’s life had been a series of triumphs and challenges. As a young girl, she lost her father, who was a cancer surgeon, in a plane crash. As she began her career as a TV broadcast journalist, it was during this period she had become caregiver to her brother, who had health complications from type 2 diabetes, and her aging mother who was eventually diagnosed with dementia.  She says what she realizes now that she did not at the time, is that caring for her brother and mother simultaneously over 30 years ago is when her caregiving journey began.  After GMA, she became a health advocate, writing books, making speeches and continuing to bring her California-girl sunshine to the masses, all the while crisscrossing the country from her East Coast home to the brother and mother who needed her care on the West Coast. After divorcing her first husband, she found love again with current husband, Jeff Konigsberg, only to face infertility issues and opt for surrogacy to have her last four children (two sets of twins who joined Joan’s three older daughters from her first marriage).

NewsletterAdI met Joan in 2010 when she interviewed me as a caregiving expert on a special RLTV program called “Taking Care with Joan Lunden.”  Since then, I have interviewed her a few times over the years and am always amazed at her boundless energy, her “you can do it” attitude and her genuine interest in people and their lives. Although her life reads like a Lifetime movie, the up and down Lunden roller-coaster has never impacted her exuberance. Joan credits her parents for her optimism. She said, “My mom was the ultimate positive thinker and my dad was a doer.”

It is this positive outlook that brings Joan a lifeforce which I know will help her conquer breast cancer and is the same prescription that made her a model caregiver.  What she learned as a caregiver is now empowering her as a cancer warrior.

For instance, Joan told me she had guilt over not moving her mother closer to her while her mom lived her last years with dementia. Eventually, Joan realized that removing her mother from her comfort zone of the California sunshine and dear friends to colder climes on the East Coast, would not have solved the problem. Joan was traveling constantly during those last years and would not have had much more time to care for her mother even if she had lived down the street. The staff at the California dementia care home where she eventually moved her mom reminded Joan that the periods between visits were inconsequential to someone with dementia who has lost ability to understand space and time.

Joan also expressed guilt over being diagnosed with breast cancer. Advocating for healthy eating much of her adult life, she says she felt that somehow she must have done something wrong along the way. Joan realizes now she was paying lip service to reading food labels – ignoring the real information.  She said, “The American diet is the best fertilizer for growing cancer.” Today Joan eats clean and has eliminated wheat, dairy and sugar from her diet and advocates for avoiding GMO foods (genetically modified organisms).

Having the strength and energy to battle cancer is the same diet plan caregivers need to have the stamina to keep caring for a loved one. And letting go of guilt is the ingredient for a strong emotional core during caregiving challenges.

Joan also looks for the silver linings in life – a lesson all caregivers need to push through some difficult and overwhelming feelings. When it came to dementia and caring for her mom, Joan realized she had to let go of trying to bring her mother back into Joan’s world. Instead Joan had to step into her mom’s world. When she showed her mom photos of her grown daughters, her mother would express confusion or lack of interest in not knowing these people. But when Joan swapped those photos with some of her and her brother as children and included some of her parents as young newlyweds, her mother’s face would light up. Along the way, Joan learned new things about her parent’s early life that she felt she would have missed if her mother did not have the cognitive impairment that made them both refresh memories from long ago.

When it comes to cancer, Joan said her silver lining is in recognizing the irony of losing her adored father who just happened to be a cancer surgeon. His plane crashed returning from a conference where he was training other cancer doctors.  When Joan was first diagnosed, she pondered whether or not to go public with the news. As she told the AARP crowd, “I thought it was ridiculous I could stay private with this news – it would break somehow. But my second thought was I had always wanted to follow in my dad footsteps and become a surgeon but scalpels and blades where not my thing. However, my dad gave his life training others about cancer – now I can follow his footsteps and do the same thing.”

Joan Lunden People Magazine Oct 2014As I look at the beautiful, bold, bald cover photo of Joan on this week’s People magazine, it is clear she is our teacher, our healer, our cheerleader and our role model in caregiving and in caring for ourselves.

Sherri has interviewed Joan several times over the years and included Joan’s caregiving story in her book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care.

Caring for a Best Friend – On Wings of An Angel

In honor of National Friendship Day – August 3 – we celebrate the special caregiving friendship of Alana Stewart and Farrah Fawcett. Here is their story…

farrah, alana from book coverSome friendships last a lifetime.  And then there is Alana and Farrah.   For Alana Stewart and the late Farrah Fawcett their friendship continues even though Alana lost her dear friend of more than 30 years in 2009.  Theirs is a true love story – it’s about sharing your innermost secrets, having each other’s back, laughing when you want to cry, taking the good with the bad, never giving up on each other.  This kind of friendship is rare.

When it comes to caregiving, many friends will bake a casserole, visit you in the hospital or help by picking up your kids at soccer practice.  Not many will put their own lives on pause for almost three years to chase promising new cancer treatments half way across the world, be your advocate with health care professionals, hold your head and hand while you spend hours with nausea from chemotherapy.  That is love.

When I told Alana how rare her friendship with Farrah is, she responded, “I didn’t think it was so rare, it was just the thing to do.”  And when Farrah asked Alana to be with her in Germany and the U.S. while she sought treatment, there was no question in Alana’s mind that she would be there for her friend.

Over the course of three years, from Farrah’s anal cancer diagnosis in 2006 to her death in 2009, Alana was by Farrah’s side.  She made several trips with Farrah to Germany to seek new treatments not yet approved in the U.S.  Alana recalls how hard it was to watch her friend go through painful surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments that were helping her fight the cancer but were also beating down her immune system making the athletic Farrah so weak.

“Farrah had such amazing courage and faith, we never even talked about the possibility of these treatments not working,” says Stewart.

As is typical in caregiving situations, Alana became Farrah’s protector.  For instance, she ensured no paparazzi caught a photo of Farrah in a wheelchair.  Alana explains this wasn’t vanity on Farrah’s part it was her not wanting other cancer patients to feel she was losing the fight or that she was weak – she wanted to be strong for the people who had written her letters about being their inspiration.

Alana also became Farrah’s advocate with various health care professionals.  While the choices Farrah made for her treatment were all her own – Alana took notes and asked a lot of questions and at Farrah’s request, documented the conversations on video that became an Emmy-nominated NBC documentary, “Farrah’s Story” that aired one month before Farrah’s passing in 2009.

“It is a really rare friend who steps in like a family member to be a primary caregiver,” says Dr. Rosemary Laird, medical director at the Health First Aging Institute in Florida.

One thing Alana and I spoke about was the healing power of friendship.  “There are a lot of studies about people who have love in their lives who have a better chance of recovery,” says Stewart.  “Love is a very healing energy…knowing someone is in your corner as you battle an illness is really important because it makes you feel like you are not going through this alone.”

When it comes to the power of friendships, a book called Connected:  The Surprising Power of our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, illuminates how friendships can hold sway over us (and us over them) in both good and bad ways.  This influence can extend to three degrees of friendship and according to the authors, having a first-degree friend who is happy increases the likelihood of your happiness factor by 15 percent.

Healing Herself By Helping Others

alana-stewart-headshot-002 (2) from AlanaOne of the things that Alana promised Farrah is that she would carry out her wishes to continue the work of the foundation Farrah had established to help those families facing cancer.

Today, Alana is president of the Farrah Fawcett Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring non-traditional methods of cancer research and clinical trials, such as gene therapy and targeted therapy, and providing early detection and preventative programs.  If Farrah could not find the cure in her lifetime, she wanted to ensure the foundation created in her name would do it for others after she was gone – and Alana is the keeper of that flame.

The foundation hosts conferences with leading cancer researchers and experts around the globe.  Recent gatherings have focused on chemo sensitivity testing.  The foundation is also dedicated to helping caregivers and families directly.  The Farrah Fawcett Patient Assistance Fund helps families struggling with financial challenges while going through cancer treatment.  “Whether it’s meals or hotel bills or even parking costs for every day when you are at a medical center while your loved one gets treatment, our program provides direct financial help to those families in need,” says Stewart.

Being at the helm of the Farrah Fawcett Foundation has helped Alana keep Farrah’s memory and legacy alive.  Alana’s message and her mission with the foundation is what Farrah wanted – to give back to the world, something Alana says she learned from the experience of caring for Farrah.  In the end, Alana just wants her friend to be proud of the foundation work that carries her name.

Stewart says one of the other things she learned about her journey with Farrah was the importance of doing something for another person.

“Getting out of yourself and your own problems and just showing up for someone.  What I learned is to try to appreciate every day of your life because it can take a turn and change in a heartbeat,” says Stewart.  “You also learn to value the friends in your life and not take love and families for granted.”

My Journey with FarrahIn Alana’s book, My Journey with Farrah, Ryan O’Neal, Farrah’s longtime love and companion writes, “The bond between women friends is all-powerful and not to be taken lightly.  But the bond between Alana and Farrah is like nothing I’ve ever seen between two women.  They grew together like vines.”

You can follow the activities of the Farrah Fawcett Foundation on Facebook and Alana Stewart on Twitter at AlanaKStewart.

More of Alana and Farrah’s story can be found in Sherri Snelling’s book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care.

White House dreamstime_m_13650075 (2)On President’s Day, we honor two great men who have led this country through its creation and one of its most trying times – namely George Washington and Abraham Lincoln respectively.  But today I honor the First Ladies who have helped care for this nation and in turn have been caregivers for family members.

Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan, Barbara and Laura Bush and the caregiving pioneer, Rosalynn Carter, are passionate advocates for our nation’s 65 million caregivers because they have taken the caregiving journey themselves.

Hillary Clinton dreamstime_m_18904593 (2)Hillary Clinton – Caregiving Champion

In 2011, Hillary Clinton lost her 92-year-old mother, Dorothy Rodham.  While the details of her mother’s passing and possible illness were kept private from the invasive world of 24/7 news media, Clinton has been a long-time advocate of the nation’s caregivers when she was a Senator from New York.  She supported several pieces of proposed legislation which offered more services to support those family members who are providing 80 percent of the long-term care to keep a loved one living at home as long as possible.

In an interview from Clinton’s campaign days for the Democratic presidential nomination, she credited her mother with giving her the tools — and toughness — to enter politics.  In the end, her mother had also given her daughter the tools to be a compassionate caregiver.


Nancy Reagan cropNancy Reagan – The Loving, Long Good-bye to a Spouse with Alzheimer’s

Nancy and Ronald Reagan’s touching affection for each other was evident in the letter former President Reagan wrote to tell the world he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  In this letter, President Reagan not only helped shine his celebrity spotlight on a disease many Americans did not understand, but he also highlighted the concern he had for Nancy who would be caring for him.  He understood the difficult emotional toll it would take on his wife and as the disease progressed, and the last 10 years of his life he did not even recognize her.

As the caregivers of today’s more than five million Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease know, Nancy lived the last 10 years of her husband’s life known to dementia caregivers as the long good-bye. While Nancy had the resources to care for her husband in ways most Americans do not, the emotional toll it took on her cannot be ignored.

What was perhaps most heartwarming was that the strained relationship Nancy had with her stepchildren and with her own son and daughter, actually improved over the course of President Reagan’s disease diagnosis and decline.  Family dynamics are sometimes difficult to navigate during caregiving and can lead to added stress and strife.  But, in this instance, it brought a family closer together which is one of the gifts that can come from caregiving.

Since President Reagan’s passing, Nancy has become a passionate advocate for Alzheimer’s disease awareness and education and especially advocating for the research around embryonic stem cells that can hopefully lead to a cure.  She also speaks about her personal caregiving journey and the need to recognize caregivers as a crucial part of the care team around a loved one.

In the last few years, Nancy has needed the care of her family more than ever having suffered from several falls – one in which she broke her pelvis without realizing it until the persistent pain drove her to the doctor who finally diagnosed the fracture.  More than 2 million older Americans suffer from falls requiring emergency room care and every 29 minutes a senior dies at home from a fall according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Rosalynn Carter headshotRosalynn Carter – Caring for Parents On Both Ends of Her Life

Long recognized as one of the pioneers of the caregiving movement, Rosalynn Carter is known for her famous description of the life event of caregiving in America:

You have been a caregiver

You are a caregiver

You will be a caregiver

Or someone will be caring for you

In her book, Helping Yourself Help Others – A Book for Caregivers, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter writes, “We can learn to approach caregiving as a blessing as well as a challenging task.”

She knows of what she speaks firsthand:  Rosalynn was only 12 years old when her father was diagnosed with terminal leukemia.  As the eldest daughter, she helped care for her ailing father and supported her mother by also caring for her younger siblings.  She took up caregiving again for several relatives with cancer after she left the White House and most recently was caregiver for her mother who died in 2000 at age 94.

Rosalynn’s gift to caregivers comes from a lifetime of understanding the challenges – emotional, physical and financial – that accompany caring for a loved one.  A long-time devoted and determined advocate for those Americans with mental health issues, Rosalynn Carter is also behind the founding of the Rosalynn Carter Institute (RCI) for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, Georgia.

The mission of the RCI is to establish local, state and national partnerships with organizations focused on quality, long-term home and community based services to help caregivers.  The RCI activities include a variety of advocacy, academic, and awards and scholarship programs.  While many of the caregiver programs are Georgia-based, these programs are examples that help serve as models for nationwide caregiver support, education and training.

Mrs. Bush 41 and 43

Barbara BushLast holiday season, Barbara Bush was called into service as caregiver to her husband, former President George Herbert Walker Bush known as “Bush 41.”  Bush suffered from terrible bronchitis which prompted a hospital stay and time in the intensive care unit when his fever spiked.  Although age 88, Bush has been a vital senior, skydiving for a recent birthday and traveling the globe as a peace ambassador with former rival President Clinton.  Discharged in January, Barbara is stepping into that role that so many octogenarian spouses are:  caregiver. But it is a role she has played before for her child with a chronic illness. While the stress of the presidency has a tendency to prematurely age the men who have held office, it was Barbara who suffered incredible stress and depression and subsequent “white” hair after caring for her ill child and then experiencing the premature death of her four-year-old daughter Robin to leukemia.


Laura BushLaura Bush, an only child who grew up in the oil town of Midland, Texas, played caregiver to both her mother and her father.  While campaigning with her husband George Bush who was running for governor of Texas, her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  While Laura played back-up to her mother who was primary caregiver, she poignantly wrote in The Shriver Report:  A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s about the impact to families when Alzheimer’s disease happens.

“What my mother noticed first was that my father could no longer fill out bank deposit slips. He would stare at the lines on the forms, a look of confusion washing over his face. So Mother began to make the deposits for him. We never got a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or a specific form of cognitive failing. But we saw his mind erode. Once, he asked our daughter Barbara to get him some ‘B & Bs.’ He meant M&Ms, but he kept saying ‘B & Bs.’ In her 10-year-old way, she understood him and came out of the grocery store with the brown bag of the bright candy just the same.”

Laura stepped in again to care for her mother, Jenna Welch, who was diagnosed with and survived breast cancer when she was 78.  Laura’s support of Susan G. Komen for the Cause and her activism on behalf of women’s risk of heart disease has led her to play a leading role in women’s and caregiver health issues. She is an ambassador for The Heart Truth campaign created by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and dedicated the inaugural display of the First Ladies Red Dress Collection at the John F. Kennedy for the Performing Arts in 2005.

42-21828752First Lady, First Daughter – Sandwich Generation Champion

Our current First Lady Michelle Obama joined the ranks of caregiver growing up as the daughter of a father with multiple sclerosis.  Her experience in helping to care for a father with an autoimmune disease currently affecting more than 400,000 people in the U.S. with 200 more people diagnosed every week gave her early insights to the impact of caregiving on families.  Michelle has been a true champion of the Sandwich Generation – those caregivers squeezed between caring for two generations – children and older parents.

While women may be seen as “the power behind the throne,” these First Ladies are proof that women also put the heart into caregiving.

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

CastofCaregivers Cover FINAL