She’s a well-known television personality, new Rose Bowl Parade host and an Emmy award winner, but Leeza Gibbons’ non-entertainment roles have introduced her to an entirely different audience of fans.
As the founder of the Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation, Leeza’s Place and Leeza’s Care Connection, Gibbons has created a support network and programs for caregivers that address issues her own family faced after her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. And as the author of several books, including Take 2, Take Your Oxygen First and Fierce Optimism, Gibbons shares some of the things she learned along the way as a caregiver with a demanding profession, schedule and life.
“This [caregiving advocacy] is one of my real passions,” Gibbons says. “I really wish society, in general, had more awareness and appreciation for caregivers’ incredible contributions. But how do you value the invaluable?”
Gibbons created the Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation in 2002 as a promise to her mother to “tell her story and make it count.” Leeza’s Place, the signature program of the Foundation, is a home to all types of family caregivers. It opened its doors in 2003 as the manifestation of what Gibbons says she “wished we had when we were going through this journey.” After Leeza’s Place was established, Gibbons and her team introduced Leeza’s Care Connection in Burbank, California, a place she says is “where caregivers come together to become stronger, more resilient and grounded.
“We’ve learned through almost a decade of working with families at Leeza’s Place that caregivers are best when they are connected to each other, to support services and to their own strength of spirit,” Gibbons says. “Nobody throws a party when you become a caregiver; there is not a section for caregiver greeting cards. You show up for duty because you have to do so. It is very gratifying for me to be able to formally offer help.”
The Evolution from Emmy Winner to Advocate
Gibbons’ role on television’s Entertainment Tonight catapulted her to stardom and led to an award-winning daytime talk show, Leeza, and to My Generation, a PBS show for which she won the 2013 Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host. Later, Gibbons raised more than $700,000 for the Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation when she became only the second woman to win NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice competition during a season that delivered the highest overall ratings in nearly five years.
Her public role allowed Gibbons to utilize her talents for advocacy in health care, wellness and caregiving, both as a speaker and an author. Next, the self-described wife, mother, journalist and businesswoman established her writing career with Take 2, a New York Times bestseller and personal growth guide designed to help people “hit the reset button on their lives.” Today, her businesses include a scrapbook line that she says “honors the value of memories,” a jewelry collection that symbolizes transformation, and cosmetic products “to reveal inner and outer beauty.” This collection of enterprises complements Gibbons’ passion and advocacy work for caregiving.
Candles in the Dark
When Gibbons reflects on her family’s introduction to caregiving, first with her mother and then with her father, she says “we fumbled through it.” Noting that it “doesn’t matter how smart you are or where you work,” Gibbons recalls experiencing what many would agree is a universal reaction when her family received her mother’s diagnosis.
Nothing else matters when you find out someone you love has a life-altering diagnosis,” she says. “Caregivers have to call on their courage because it is a marathon of trial and error. We had the incredible good fortune of my mother leaving us ‘breadcrumbs.’ When she was disappearing into the darkness, she left candles for us.”
Gibbons added that it is not uncommon for families to unravel from the mental and physical exhaustion that accompanies caregiving. Conflict can arise over decisions that have to be made for the loved one, especially if there have been no prior discussions.
“We were lucky because my mom left marching orders, and we knew what she wanted,” Gibbons says. “I always encourage people to have these discussions when their loved one is in good health and destigmatize the process of making decisions. Later, when my dad had a heart attack, our family benefitted from the dress rehearsal we had had with Mom. We were much better at going about the business of caregiving because of everything we learned from her.”
Gold Stars and Superhero Capes
As a result of her caregiving experiences with her mother and father, Gibbons says she learned valuable lessons that she has incorporated into her daily life and into the philosophy behind her organizations. Although many people in caregiving roles feel that they should be able to handle everything without missing a beat in their daily lives, Gibbons believes this type of thinking can be detrimental to everyone involved.
“With my father, we had an in-home companion who looked over him like a hawk, and my brother and sister and I were able to coordinate our schedules to care for him as well,” Gibbons says. “It’s so important to be able to receive help from others; it makes us all stronger.”
Gibbons espouses a “breathe, believe, receive” attitude as part of her viewpoint on caregiving. Pointing out that there is no “gold-star handbook for doing it all yourself,” she encourages individuals in a caregiving role to realize the importance of also caring for themselves.
“We all need to know our limits, but we judge ourselves so harshly,” says Gibbons. “When you talk to caregivers, one thing you don’t hear very often is the word ‘I.’ Many times, they don’t realize that you’ve asked about them. But just like the instructions you receive on an airplane, you have to take your own oxygen first and strengthen your own mind, body and spirit to be able to help others more effectively.”
Gibbons says that one of her most difficult transitions was learning to honor her need to be uncomfortable with what was happening to her parents. Like many individuals who pride themselves on being solutions-oriented service providers, Gibbons says she felt uncomfortable because she couldn’t control the situation. She says she had to “take the [superhero] cape off and realize that I could not come in and save the day.” The realization led her to therapy and a new way of thinking about self-care.
“Caregivers are vessels at the risk of being emptied,” Gibbons says. “I had to get better at letting friends know what I needed. Caregiving for my parents has given me a wonderful skill set of learning to ask for help and being very specific about it. People want to help and often just don’t know what to do. So I learned to say things like, ‘Can you bring dinner Tuesday night?’ or ‘Can you walk the dog?’ Those things become really important.
“Our highest humanity is when we can offer help to someone,” she continues. “We take that away from others when we don’t allow them to help us.”
The roles of public personality, advocate and caregiver have been the main ingredients in a life recipe of sorts for Gibbons, one she draws upon to share bits of advice with others. A resident of Los Angeles with her husband, Steven Fenton, Gibbons incorporates nature and nurture into her daily routine, and she says that while she believes every individual has to design a customized formula for well-being, her own incorporates several constants, including long walks and hikes, crafts, family and reflection.
I’m a closet craft geek, but I was never very good at it,” Gibbons says, laughing. “I have drawers, baskets and bins filled with things like dried flowers and vintage fabrics. I like to make handmade cards and scan a bunch of old articles for pictures, but typically, I just make a mess.”
Looking back on the time when her mother became ill, Gibbons says she learned to honor her need for alone time. Her feelings included sadness, anger and confusion, among many others, and she developed her own form of release that allowed her to deal with the conflicting emotions.
“When my mom was sick, I used to go on walks alone, and I would record whatever was on my mind,” Gibbons says. “There was something about being in motion, in solitude, that made it easier for me to let go and process my thoughts. I still have all of those mini-cassettes locked in a safe, and I haven’t yet had the need to go back and listen to them, but they are there. When you are experiencing a difficult time in your life, you often have to learn to walk with the pain and not try to push it down. It can be a dark time, but you have to find your sanity, your sanctuary, wherever you can.”
Her family members became “care partners” for her mother and father, Gibbons notes, adding that even some small discoveries along the way had a tremendous impact. Recalling the time when her family learned about the Philips Lifeline, Gibbons says her family gained tremendous peace of mind from knowing where her father was via the technology.
“We wanted to do everything we could to make things safe, and he wanted to live his life independently,” she explains. “With the Lifeline, he could do things like go fishing on a lake, and we didn’t have to worry because it would track his location.”
Now on the threshold of turning 60, Gibbons says she divides her time between Rose Bowl Parade duties, a role that “is much more of a yearlong thing than people might imagine,” producing a preshow that involves behind-the-scenes stories, and writing a new book titled Because I Said So, a literary endeavor that recalls her mother’s “kitchen-table wisdom.” It’s a busy schedule, but one that Gibbons says she relishes.
“Just as I encourage others to do, I have designed my life to be a customized experience,” she says. “It’s a lovely place to be. And I think about some of the things my mom said, along with the statement that ‘Someday you’ll thank me for telling you this,’ and I realize she was right about so much. We should just show up every day, do our best and forget the rest. We cheer each other along, and we don’t miss opportunities to support each other. Good always wins, and the people who represent that are the ones that last.”