Glenn Close Wants to Change Your Mind About Mental Illness

All caregiving can be exhausting, frustrating, overwhelming and stressful but for the caregivers of those with a mental health issue the societal stigma you face creates additional challenges.

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. has a diagnosable mental disorder and the average age is 14 for the on-set of mental illness.  NAMI is leading the national awareness campaign – the National Mental Illness Awareness Week is October 6-12 – first established by the U.S. Congress in 1990. The campaign includes National Depression Screening Day on October 10.

Shining a Spotlight on Mental Illness

Oscar-nominated and Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress Glenn Close wants to help lift the veil of mental illness to reveal the myths and eliminate the shame associated with bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues through a national public service campaign.

Glenn has become a champion who is shedding light on the dark world of bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia which affects her sister and her nephew respectively.  Appearing on the TV morning show, Good Morning America, Glenn said, “I believe we need to be having discussions around mental illness and talk as openly as we do about other diseases such as cancer or diabetes.”

Starring alongside her sister, Glenn launched a public service announcement (PSA) campaign on mental health issues created by BringChange2Mind, the nonprofit organization Glenn helped found to eliminate the discrimination felt by those with mental illness and their family caregiver.  Her hope is increased awareness will get more people to seek help.

Caregiver Depression a Slippery Slope

In a study of caregiver health risks, the National Alliance for Caregiving reported 91 percent of those caregivers whose health was in decline reported suffering from depression over caring for a loved one.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported deaths from suicides since 2009 had surpassed deaths from motor vehicle crashes in the U.S.  The report also found the increase in suicides were most significant among the baby boomers – for men age 50-59 years old an increase of 47-49 percent and for women age 60-64 an increase of 59.7 percent. One potential cause cited for this increase was caring for an older, ailing parent.

We also know that for those 15 million Americans caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, the risk of becoming isolated from friends, other family and life’s typical social connections is a common issue based on how loved ones are shamed by their diagnosis.

According to the Alzheimer’s Disease International’s World Alzheimer Report, about 25 percent of people with dementia report hiding or concealing their diagnosis due to the stigma surrounding the disease, and 40 percent say they are often excluded from everyday life.

Read here about caregivers of veterans with invisible wounds of PTSD and TBI

 

©2017 Sherri Snelling

Kimberly Williams Paisley – Long Distance Lullaby for a Mom with Dementia

We all know the talented actress, Kimberly Williams Paisley, mostly from her fresh-faced, “all-American girl” role in the Father of the Bride movies. We also know her as the lucky real-life bride to country crooner and music star, Brad Paisley.

But it wasn’t until 2016 when Kim wrote her poignant memoir about becoming a dementia caregiver for her mother that we added her to the growing list of Sandwich Generation caregivers.

 

Our CEO, Sherri Snelling, interviewed Kim about her book, Where the Light Gets In – Losing My Mother Only to Find Her Again, that describes her challenges with a mom diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, a type of dementia. Kim tells Sherri about creating the care team around her mom with her father, sister and brother, her guilt trip and how she traveled that road that all caregivers know so well and how her loving husband used a combination of hugs and humor to keep his wife’s spirits lifted even on those darkest days.

Click here to read Sherri’s interview with Kim here for PBS Next Avenue

Dan Gasby & B Smith – The Hope to End Alzheimer’s

“I have a dream of a world without Alzheimer’s.”

–Dan Gasby

Dan Gasby and his celebrated wife B. Smith (known as Barbara to family and close friends) have always been partners – in love, in business, in life. As a former model turned beloved lifestyle icon with cookbooks, restaurants, a line of home goods at Bed, Bath & Beyond and as host of her own TV show, B. had built a wonderful life and achieved fame with Gasby’s management of her personal brand.

But after 22 years of marriage, Gasby writes in their book, Before I Forget, that he and B. started having struggles and he worried their marriage was in trouble.

It began as small arguments with B. becoming more distant and angry, a side he had never really seen in his wife before. When a reliable, punctual B. began showing up very late for important business meetings or missing them all together, Gasby knew something was wrong. But after an alarming 2012 Today TV segment where the ever- chatty and effervescent B. went silent and stared blankly at her co-hosts for what seemed an eternity, Gasby knew this was no mid-life crisis. A series of tests and visits with different specialists in Manhattan where they lived led the couple to hear a word they never thought would apply to either of them: Alzheimer’s.  B. was only 62 years old.

“B. has always been fearless, she has never been afraid of anything,” Dan Gasby told me during a break from their current book tour while they were in Birmingham, Alabama. “But both of us sat there in shock after the doctor told us B. had early on-set Alzheimer’s disease. Little did we know the journey we were about to take. But we both knew it was flight or fight and we are both fighters. I knew wherever we were going, we’d take the steps together just like we’d always done.”

Being Present and Patient

That was three years ago. Since then the couple have sold their Manhattan apartment and moved to their Sag Harbor, N.Y. coastal home. The soothing sea sounds and walks along the beach – together or alone but always with their cherished dog, Bishop – are a comfort to them both as they cope with this difficult diagnosis.

What has made their journey and their story unique is that B. is one of the rare Alzheimer’s sufferers who actually knows she has the disease. The Alzheimer’s Association reports only five percent – about 200,000 – of the more than 5 million living with Alzheimer’s disease receive a diagnosis in their 40s, 50s or early 60s. This awareness has made it easier and harder for the couple. They tackled the writing of the book (with help from Vanity Fair contributing editor, Michael Shnayerson) as they tackled everything – together. Both Gasby and Smith wrote chapters about how they were feeling through the years since B.’s diagnosis.

Dan and B. in the early days of their marriage

Gasby’s passages are filled at times with hilarious and at times heavy-hearted emotions. Beyond B.’s forgetfulness and some situations he calls the “WTF” moments help give a humorous theme to Gasby’s chapters. One example has Gasby learning to manage his ongoing frustration with not being able to convince his wife to let him hire someone to help B. organize her once pristine but now chaotic closet (he would not dare attempt the job). Then there are the more melancholy chapters about losing his lover, the woman he calls “sweetie” whose flirtatious, affectionate nature before and after making love is now dimmed. Through it all Gasby is learning how to be “present” and patient.

 

“I have learned the greatest language of all: patience,” he explained to me. “I came to a realization that Alzheimer’s had not just changed B., it changed me too. I also realized my frustrations weren’t really with B. they were with this disease and that helped me let go when I found myself getting annoyed at her.”

While Gasby’s writing is educational, especially about his quest to understand the science and research around Alzheimer’s, B.’s chapters are even more poignant since she knows one day she won’t remember any of it. Perhaps the most compelling of her writings is when she is mad about not being able to drive or when she is sad thinking she will visit her parents in Pennsylvania and then slowly remembers they passed away several years ago.

Watch Dan and B.’s story since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis:

Let the Mess Become Your Message

Gasby’s advocacy and urgency in seeking treatments and a possible cure to a disease that currently has no method to prevent, delay or stop it has led he and B. to support the Brain Health Registry. Last year, B. filmed a PSA for this online effort to encourage participation, especially among minorities, for clinical trials.

Watch the B. Smith PSA for the Brain Health Registry:

“While African Americans represent about 14 percent of the population, they bear over 30 percent of the costs of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Stephanie Monroe, executive director of AfricanAmericansAgainstAlzheimer’s. Launched in 2013, the organization is dedicated to labor intensive in-person community engagement to educate African Americans about the disease and to encourage more participation in clinical trials so essential to finding a cure.

In a report published and presented to the Congressional Black Caucus, it states that African Americans are over-represented when it comes Alzheimer’s but under-represented when it comes to research.

“The stigma in certain cultures and communities – especially among African Americans and Latinos – prevents many from ever receiving a diagnosis,” continued Monroe. “While early diagnosis can lead to treatments and drugs which are helping to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s, a later diagnosis offers fewer interventions. And with less participation in clinical trials, the hope of finding a cure is much more challenging.”

Jill Lesser, president of the WomenAgainstAlzheimer’s network that includes AfricanAmericansAgainstAlzheimer’s, said the laser focus of the organization is to find a cure for this disease by 2020.

“Most of those who are symptomatic of Alzheimer’s are probably already 10 to 15 years into the disease,” explained Lesser. “One of our research projects called Galaxy is designed for younger participants who don’t have any symptoms.  We’re taking a very disruptive approach to ending Alzheimer’s.”

Dreaming, Gardening, Creating a Vision

Gasby says he and B. decided to launch their book on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day because, “He was a hero of mine and he had a dream which we are still fulfilling,” said Gasby.

When I commented that he and B. are great examples of King’s legacy of pursuing a dream, he said, “I like to think of it more as a vision and a hope for future generations. Some day in the not too distant future, I would love to know little children are learning about Alzheimer’s disease – something they know nothing about because it doesn’t exist.”

He believes that in the same way we think today about smallpox or polio – diseases that devastated populations in the past but for which we found a cure – we have the ability to end Alzheimer’s. “But you cannot pray or talk this disease away,” said Gasby. “We must act – it’s like voting or participating in civil rights – you need to get out there and do something.”

B. is now in stage 5 of the 7 stages of the disease. Gasby told me it helps him to share his emotions – the good, bad and ugly – on Facebook. He said it’s like taking the top off a steaming, screaming kettle – once the pressure is released you feel better. The feedback he gets on social media is instant and encourages him that he and B. are making a difference.

“Right now I’m in the bargaining stage, I’ve done denial and anger and now I’m buying time in hopes that a cure will arrive,” shared Gasby referring to the five stages of grief identified by author and psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

He admits caregiving is the hardest role he has ever had to play. While he and B. have a close circle of family and friends, they have watched some “friends” slowly disappear because of their situation. He says that is okay with him.

“I look at it like having a garden where you need to pull some weeds out, fertilize the ground and the remaining plants grow even more strong and beautiful,” explained Gasby.

“Caregiving is a club I thought I would never join, I didn’t even really know it existed,” continued Gasby. “But caring for B. has made me a more complete person. You don’t really know who you are until you’ve faced real adversity and this is the hardest thing I’ve done but my ‘sweetie’ is worth it.”

This article was originally published on PBS Next Avenue

©2017 Sherri Snelling

Caregivers of the East Wing – Celebrating First Ladies

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.  And while feature films and mini-series have celebrated our former presidents, it is the First Ladies who have served as caregivers that I honor today.

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. And, Michelle Obama showed the nation how to manage a multi-generational household when her mother moved into the White House to help the former First Lady with rearing daughters, Malia and Sasha.

When current First Lady Melania Trump takes up residence in the White House next month, she may not be caring for her older parents or other relatives but she has pledged to support women’s issues and there is no bigger issue for women today than the juggling act of caring for an older parent. And, First Daughter, Ivanka Trump Kushner, has been instrumental in pushing her father, President Donald Trump, into adopting an expanded family leave act for working caregivers of children and older parents.

Rosalynn Carter – The First Caregiver Pioneer

 

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.  She was the first to hold a caregiver conference that identified “burn-out” that is so often a side effect of caregiving. She is also a long-time devoted and determined advocate for those Americans with mental health issues. It was the recognition of a national center to focus on the future caregiving issues facing America that led Rosalynn Carter to create 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.

Nancy Reagan – The Legacy of Alzheimer’s and the Long Good-bye

When Nancy Reagan passed away last year, she left a legacy of advocacy for the disease that took her beloved “Ronnie”: 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 this neurodegenerative disease that afflicts 5 million Americans today.  In the 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.

Today more than 15 million Americans are doing what Nancy did – caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s – and suffering the emotional toll of caregiving for a loved one with dementia known 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.

After President Reagan’s passing in 2004, Nancy became one of the most passionate advocates for Alzheimer’s disease awareness and education and especially lending her voice and support for the research around embryonic stem cells that can hopefully lead to a cure.

Barbara Bush – Caregiver for a Chronically Ill Child and an Aging Husband

At this year’s Super Bowl, one of the most poignant images was Barbara Bush pushing her husband, wheelchair-bound President George Herbert Walker Bush (known as “41”) onto the field for the coin toss.

At age 91 for Barbara and 92 for George (who is the oldest living former President), it was only days earlier that both had been hospitalized (he with pneumonia and she with bronchitis). But football in Texas is serious business and it would take more than illness and age to keep the Bushes from participating in an American tradition. And, while both have had illnesses over the years, it is Barbara who has stepped up to care for her husband over the last several years even though he was determined to be a vital senior, skydiving on his 80th, 85th and 90th birthdays.

However, in 2012, Barbara Bush was called into service as caregiver George when he was hospitalized with bronchitis and his fever had spiked. As a spousal caregiver, Barbara joins more than 3 million other spouses who are caring for their husband or wife, and the one in three caregivers who are over age 65 when the become a caregiver. And the stress of having a spouse in declining health can accelerate the stress caregivers feel.

We often witness the stress of the presidency – look at all presidents during the campaign and then after they leave office where their white or gray hair betrays the emotional burdens they have lived through. It is fact that the stress of being president prematurely age the men who have held office. But 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 in 1953 when Barbara was only 28 years old.

Hillary Clinton – Caregiving Daughter and 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 that offered more services to support those family mebers 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.

Laura Bush – Sandwich Generation Caregiver

Laura 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 “W” Bush who was running for governor of Texas, her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  While Laura, who was raising twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, 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 was 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.

First Lady, First Daughter – Sandwich Generation Champion and Made the White House a Multigenerational Household

Former 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.

Michelle also turned the White House into a multigenerational household when her husband held office. She invited her mother, Marian Shields Robinson, to come live in the White House to help care for her daughters, Malia and Sasha, who were only 10 and seven respectively. Dubbed the “First Granny,” Robinson was the first live-in grandmother in the White House since Elivera M. Doud, the mother of Mamie Eisenhower, during the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s. Recently, Pew Research reported that one in five Americans – approximately 60 million – live in multigenerational households.

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 upcoming book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care.

 

©2017 Sherri Snelling

Holly Robinson Peete Shines as Caregiver Advocate

aarp-caregiving-fair-2016

On November 17, our CEO Sherri Snelling is privileged to be hosting the opening webinar for AARP’s Online Caregiver Fair with Holly Robinson Peete.  Holly and Sherri have both been caregivers for their fathers and Holly is also a caregiver for her son with autism.  

Save the date to join Holly and Sherri on Thursday, November 17 at 11am EST where you can join us and ask us your caregiving questions. Registration is free – go to: aarp.org/familycarefair

Following are excerpts from Sherri’s book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care, including her interview with Holly Robinson Peete. As a 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, Holly is a true caregiving champ.  

hrp headshotWhen 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.

holly-and-matthew-robinson-photo“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.”

holly-and-rj-2016It 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 Peete's book on the family's journey with his autistic son.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.

MyBrotherCharlie book cover

 

 

 

same-but-different-book-and-holly-and-kidsIn 2016, Holly collaborated with her twins, RJ and Ryan Elizabeth on the book, Same But Different – Teen Life on th Autism Express.

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.

 

The Peete family with Holly's mom, Dolores Robinson

The Peete family with Holly’s mom, Delores Robinson

Cast of Caregivers Cover FINAL jpegHolly’s story along with other celebrity caregiver journeys are included in Sherri Snelling’s book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care.

 

 

 

 

©2016 Sherri Snelling

TV Icon Norman Lear on Longevity, Laughter & Love for America

Norman.tifAs the TV industry honored itself tonight with the annual Emmy Awards (normally we get excited by these events but woefully tonight was a yawn), we offer something far more entertaining: our CEO Sherri Snelling’s interview with TV icon Norman Lear.

At age 94, Lear is the definition of aging well – which is why we showcase him as part of September’s Healthy Aging Month.

Sherri’s interview with Lear is insightful as he believes laughter is essential to living longer. And, in an era when patriotism is being attacked daily, Lear talks about his love for America and why we all have an obligation to uphold the principles and promise of the Constitution and our Declaration of Independence. For you history buffs, Lear owned one of the few Dunlop broadsides – an original copy of the Declaration of Independence — and toured it around the United States over a dozen years ago so that U.S. citizens, especially younger generations, could see “America’s birth certificate” firsthand.  Now that’s putting on a show!

Along those patriotic lines – we give it a caregiving spin — check out below Sherri’s recommendation for the Caregiver Bill of Rights.

Click here to read Sherri’s interview with Norman Lear for PBS Next Avenue:

Norman Lear – Longevity, Laughter, Love of America

Click here to read Sherri’s article on the Caregiver Bill of Rights for Huffington Post:

Let the Caregiving Movement Begin with the Caregiver Bill of Rights

Some Famous Men Step Into Caregiving Spotlight

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

Jodi Foster’s Sandwich Generation Moment

Three years ago, Hollywood actress/director, Jodie Foster received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for a Lifetime Achievement in Film at the Golden Globes ceremony. While Foster’s accomplishment in movies is formidable it was her heartfelt speech that night about her mother that riveted the audience and TV viewers.

For more than 7 minutes she commanded the stage and a worldwide audience in an emotional stream of consciousness as this most private of celebrities shared intimate thoughts about her mother, Evelyn “Brandy,” with dementia in the same way she has shared her art with us through her compelling film performances for four decades.

She spoke directly into the camera as if the crowded room of Hollywood luminaries and millions of viewers at home went out of focus and she was speaking to the single mom who held her 53-year-old daughter’s hand through show business since she was three years old.

“Mom I know you’re inside those blue eyes somewhere and that there are so many things you won’t understand tonight,” said a teary Foster. “But this is the only important one to take in:  I love you, I love you, I love you.  And I hope that if I say this three times, it will magically and perfectly enter into your soul, fill you with grace and the joy of knowing that you did good in this life.  You’re a great mom. Please take that with you when you’re finally OK to go.”

jodie-foster-and-her-mother-evelyn-gettyimagesThis revelation of her 87-year-old mother’s Alzheimer’s disease (although she never said “Alzheimer’s”) was not the first time Foster has talked about her mother’s illness but it was the most high profile and profoundly public acknowledgement of her Sandwich Generation caregiving role. Her young sons, Charles and Kit, were in the audience as their proud mom talked of her boys being the reason she is inspired while she also said her mother was the “greatest influence of my life.”

In a 2010 interview with the Daily Mail in the UK, she said about her mother’s illness, “She’s really a new person, not the mom I grew up with, and I have a real nostalgia for who she was. She spent years and years alone because she never remarried after my father left and she raised us by herself.  She used to say: ‘I’m an only child so I prefer to be alone,’ and she didn’t keep up with her friends.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans and 36 million people worldwide are diagnosed with dementia and an additional 17 million Americans care for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease (the most common type of dementia).  In fact, every 67 seconds someone new develops the disease and while early on-set Alzheimer’s can be diagnosed when someone is in their 40s or 50s, one out of every two people age 85 or older will develop dementia.

Jodie Foster joins the ranks of the 24 million Sandwich Generation caregivers – those caring for children still at home while simultaneously caring for an older parent – including high-profile caregivers such as Diane Keaton, Maria Shriver, Brooke Shields, Joan Lunden and Holly Robinson Peete.

While some caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s find it hard or almost impossible to care for their loved one at home because of violent outbursts, sundowning (extreme paranoia and frightfulness that can including screaming that begins at dusk) or wandering off, Foster has stated she will keep her mom in her home as long as possible.

When asked in an interview if she would consider seeking residential care for her mother, she said, “Oh God no way. I’m going to feel good — I’m going to feel that the end honored her and that she didn’t have to lose her dignity.

“Dementia is an interesting thing,” continued Foster. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve been through and yet also strangely sacred… I’m just here to care for her. I have no axe to grind. Mine will be the last face she sees.”

Jodie Foster has never wished to be a symbol for her choices in life: Child actor free of scandal (if you don’t count the pre-pubescent prostitute she played in Taxi Driver which had some people up in arms); college co-ed career disrupted by a would-be presidential assassin (that forced her even further into her privacy shell); actor turned director (whose latest offering is Money Monster starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts opening this month); but I would love it if the Sandwich Generation could count on Jodie to continue to raise awareness for a role many of us will play in life: caregiver.

©2016 Sherri Snelling

Holly Robinson Peete – Shining Her Starring Spotlight on Autism/Parkinsons

As we commemorate National Parkinson’s Disease Awareness and National Autism Awareness this month, Sherri Snelling excerpts from her book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care, her interview with Holly Robinson Peete. As a 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, Holly is a true caregiving champ.  Autism and Parkinson’s disease are two health issues Holly knows well – her father suffered from Parkinson’s and her oldest son, RJ, is living with autism.

hrp headshotWhen 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 Peete's book on the family's journey with his autistic son.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. MyBrotherCharlie book cover

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.

Team Peete. Photo by Christopher Voelker.

Team Peete. Photo by Christopher Voelker.

 

Cast of Caregivers Cover FINAL jpegHolly’s story along with other celebrity caregiver journeys are included in Sherri Snelling’s book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care.

 

©2016 Sherri Snelling

 

Music and Multiple Sclerosis – How the Show Goes On for the Osmonds

Alan and David Osmond

Alan and David Osmond

As we celebrate National Multiple Sclerosis Month, 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 my interview with Alan and David from my book, A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care.

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).

The Show Goes On for the Osmonds

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.”

Alan with wife Suzanne

Alan with wife Suzanne

David and wife Valerie

David and wife Valerie

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.

“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).

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 t-shirts for my girls that say ‘Having MS gets on my dad’s nerves.’”

©2016 Sherri Snelling

 

Nancy Reagan’s Caregiving Legacy

Nancy Reagan cropThe passing of former First Lady Nancy Reagan on Sunday had our CEO Sherri Snelling reflecting on her advocacy for family caregivers and especially for Alzheimer’s research. Read Sherri’s article that was published on PBS Next Avenue:

Nancy Reagan’s Caregiving Legacy

 

Glen Campbell’s Legacy: Music and Awareness of Alzheimer’s

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Glen and Kim Campbell right after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis

I was thinking about the Grammy Awards just a couple of years ago when Glen Campbell took the stage after telling the world he had Alzheimer’s disease. It was a powerful, moving moment.

I have had the privilege of interviewing Kim Campbell and her daughter, Ashley, with music legend about their caregiving journey for a husband and a father diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The Campbell family’s poignant story is captured in my interview for this article that was originally published on PBS Next Avenue in 2014. The documentary which was released in 2015, I’ll Be Me, is now available on DVD.

Glen Campbell’s Final Farewell Tour Captured in Poignant New Film

 

 

Glen and daughter Ashley during his farewell tour

Glen and daughter Ashley during his farewell tour

An NFL Wife Tackles Dementia

Sylvia Mackey bio photoAs millions tune in to the Super Bowl this Sunday, I am cheering for one football wife who tackled her husband’s dementia with a game plan to keep their lives as normal as possible and in the process found her calling as a caregiving advocate.   Her passionate plea to the NFL, one of the most powerful organizations in sports, resulted in the “88 Plan,” a break-through long-term care plan that gives security and support to former players and their families when it comes to brain-related illness.

While this story is about caregiving, football and dementia, at its heart, this is a love story.

 

 

 

 

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 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, stated that Mackey should have been first.

john-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 NFL championship history.  It was Super Bowl V played in 1971, that John caught the nail-biting pass from 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 that 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 toughest 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 that this diagnosis could have sacked her (in football parlance) but instead she did not let this devastating news knock her down.  One incident that highlights the special challenges that dementia caregivers face was played out at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport.

“John and I were on our way to the Super Bowl – 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,” said Sylvia.

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, refused to remove these items and place them on the conveyor belt to be scanned.  In his mind, he did not understand that 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 and took him off to jail.

All the while, a tearful and frightened Sylvia was trying her best to explain to the agents and the curious onlookers that her husband was the NFL great and one of Baltimore’s favorite sons, John Mackey, that his illness meant he had no ability to understand what was happening, and ultimately she begged the officers to let her proud husband go.  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 that “Courage is grace under fire.” 

When Sylvia caught up with her husband at the police station, John was back to his typical, jovial, social self – signing autographs for many of the police officers who finally recognized the NFL great.  It was at this moment as her husband basked in the bright light of his fame, that 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 Super Bowls or other travel 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 that 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 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.

And, these special plans are not just for those with famous last names.  One lesson all caregivers can take from Sylvia’s travel strategy is to plan ahead and ask a lot of questions.  Most airports will work with caregivers on the special travel needs of their loved ones.

The Final Play

JohnandSylviaMackey (2)Sadly, John Mackey lost his battle with dementia and passed away in 2011.  A few years 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 that many back-up players make in one season today.  The LTC plan was championed by current Commissioner Roger Goodell and was adopted by the NFL in 2007.  The “88 Plan,” was named to honor Mackey’s jersey number and provides retired players suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, ALS or Parkinson’s disease with $88,000 annually for long-term care or adult day care or $50,000 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.

As the Giants and Patriots prepare to square off in Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLVI, Sylvia’s message to all caregivers on this game day – and every day – is to “Prepare.  Prepare.  Prepare.”

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

Cast of Caregivers Cover FINAL jpeg