Caring for caregivers: Leeza Gibbons’ walk set for Sept. 21
BY DENISE M. BARAN-UNLAND Correspondent September 6, 2013 2:26PM
Jean Gibbons (left) and radio/television personality Leeza Gibbons, pictured in 1989, years before Jean developed Alzheimer's disease and Leeza founded Leeza's Care Connection, a foundation that supports, educates and empowers caregivers. | Supplied photo
Updated: October 9, 2013 6:06AM
No typical girl who plays with Barbies ever says, “I want to be a caregiver when I grow up,” said Leeza Gibbons, the television and radio personality and founder and chief executive officer of Leeza’s Care Connection.
Consequently, Gibbons said, few people possess the emotional collateral needed to face a memory-robbing illness in a loved one.
“It can be the turning point in preserving your sanity or watching the rest of your family unravel,” Gibbons said. “We can’t walk that path alone.”
On Sept. 21, when Leeza’s Care Connection in Joliet will offer its fourth “Journey in Motion” fundraiser to celebrate caregivers’ courage and strength, Gibbons will join that walk along the Illinois & Michigan Canal at Channahon State Park on behalf of caregivers unable to attend.
“We need to continually support and tell the stories of the millions of caregivers in our country,” Gibbons said. “They are the ones that show up for duty every day.”
The distance or pace walked is unimportant, said Kathy Miller, program and outreach director at Leeza’s Care Connection at Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet.
The walk, like life and caregiving, is not a competition. One must travel at his or her own pace.
“Caregivers have enough on their plate and we realize that not every step leads forward with a prize waiting for us at the end,” Miller said. “Some days, one more step can seem too much. We get that. This walk — like caregiving — is about the journey, and we’re on this journey with you.”
Gibbons created The Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation in 2002, shortly after her mother Jean Gibbons was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Jean had asked Gibbons to “tell her story and make it count.”
“Mom wanted to help other people on the path,” Gibbons said, “so it was a no-brainer for our family to create this special support system we wished we’d had.”
Signs of Alzheimer’s disease appeared early, in Jean’s late 50s, but that memory loss was mistakenly attributed to a head injury from a car accident and Jean’s attempt to self-medicate those symptoms with alcohol, Gibbons said.
“She had been the type of woman I hope to one day be,” Gibbons said. “She had this incredible life force. She was passionate, funny and sassy, full of kitchen table wisdom. She encouraged me in every way and held me accountable.”
When Gibbons learned the cause behind Jean’s symptoms, Gibbons felt relieved that the unnamed enemy — the one tempting Gibbons to pull the blankets over her head and hide — finally had a name. Now, she said, the family could address it.
“We really encourage people to name it and claim it as early as they can,” Gibbons said. “The sooner you get your support plan and team in place, the better.”
Despite Gibbons’ strong ties to her family, she still felt afraid, isolated and powerless. She wondered how families with fewer resources and less emotional connectivity managed. This is where Gibbons’ foundation stepped in.
At the Joliet site, regular features include guest speakers and caregiving, as well as brain injury support groups and opportunities to reduce stress and preserve memories, such as through scrapbooking, crocheting and a camera club.
All programs aim at one goal: strengthening caregivers, equipping them with knowledge and providing a forum for sharing experience.
“It’s so hard when dementia, Alzheimer’s, brain injuries — any cognitive challenges — strips away the essence of the person you love,” Gibbons said. “They become aggressive or unkind, say profane things and act in ways so contrary to your past experience of them. It upsets us to the very core, and resentment can bubble up.”
In 2009, Gibbons released a book based on her caregiving experiences with Jean: “Take Your Oxygen First: Protecting Your Health and Happiness While Caring for a Loved One with Memory Loss.”
And then the miraculous happened. Gibbons’ fear that she would only remember Jean as “this sick, vacant woman” never materialized. The good, happy, loving memories remained intact.
“The heart never forgets,” Gibbons said. “My mother is still that vital, strong, healthy woman. Her soul print was stronger than the disease.”
Although some of the stigma associated with memory-robbing illnesses is decreasing, Gibbons believes work is still necessary in the areas of education and building awareness.
“There used to be a lot of denial and blame but very little understanding and support,” Gibbons said. “We still have a long way to go in terms of empowering people with better ways to hang onto themselves while letting go of someone they love.”
Registration for the walk will be from 9 to 10 a.m. Sept. 21, with the journey beginning at 10 a.m. The entry fee is $20. Those who register in advance will receive a backpack/sling filled with goodies valued at $30.
For more information, visit www.leezascareconnection.org.