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Alzheimer’s advocate gives a boost to caregivers

By JANE GLENN HAAS, Orange County Register, www.ocregister.com

People are afraid of Alzheimer’s Disease and with good reason, says Leeza Gibbons.

“The fear – of losing the ability to think – well, it’s more fearful to most people than cancer,” she says. “It’s overwhelming and leaves people hopeless.”

That’s the bad news says Gibbons, currently the host of “America Now” with Bill Rancic and AARP’s “My Generation.” The good news – if you can call it that, she says – is that she expects scientists in the 21st century to look at neurological diseases, starting with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, with greater interest and success in discovering treatments.

“It’s the women’s issue of our time because, let’s face it, most caregivers for these patients are women,” she says.

The Emmy-award winning TV star – who cared for her mother during a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s – is partnering with Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. to launch the “Words of Wisdom” contest, which calls on caregivers to submit advice about finding strength and support for the care-giving journey. The ten most insightful will receive $100 gift cards and their advice will be published on www.alzheimersdisease.com.

Here she answers questions about Alzheimer’s and caregivers:

Q. I’ve read that some 15 million Americans are unpaid caregivers to a person with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. That role can be life-changing and an enormous struggle.

A. We know 5 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s and that number is expected to grow. Caregivers often have to downsize work hours and 39 percent report strained marriages. Plus there are health-related conditions because of stress.

We need to reframe the way we approach this disease. We need to make people proud to be caregivers and give them a sense of empowerment and success.

There is clinical data that shows when we take care of caregivers we get better results.

Q. You are turning the focus from patient to caregiver?

A. We know when you have a caregiver who feels capable, empowered and thriving – not just surviving – the care recipient also feels better, is more compliant with medications, for example, and can be redirected to use more therapies and treatments.

We know the more we can alleviate stress, the longer the loved one stays at home and the less likely that family is to unravel when that person declines.

That’s the sad reality. With Alzheimer’s, the family walls come tumbling down.

When you inherit this job of caregiving, it can turn you into an expert. But when the loved one dies, you suddenly have no job, no marketable skills.

I want to offer those women an opportunity to share their wisdom, to be mentors and defenders for others.

As we march further down the road, we will have an awakening. We will realize we have to create this support, be more collaborative, flexible.

We need to bring this disease and the caregivers out of the shadows.

We need to stress things that will give us all a sense of power. Getting diagnosed early, for example, means you can make plans, have access to medications that are most effective in the early stages of this disease.

People also have to become aware of the business aspect off managing this disease. Adjusting to a new normal is the first step.

As much as we are scared of getting this disease, we are even more afraid of living a long time with it.

Gibbons sponsors Leesza’s Place – a destination for family caregivers for support, education and empowerment. There are two locations in Los Angeles and others in Chicago and Florida. For more information, see leezasplace.org. For details on the caregiving contest, see alzheimersdisease.com.

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