Now Gibbons, the host of TV's Extra, must offer her mother that same unwavering support. Three years ago homemaker Jean Gibbons, now 67, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, the terminal memory-robbing disease that currently afflicts 4 million Americans. Since then, her daughter has made it a mission to raise awareness and money for research. "I asked Mom how she felt about my talking about her disease, and she said, 'Don't ever stop,' " says Gibbons, 44. "Until there's a cure, I won't."
Leeza and her siblings—Carlos Jr., 47, is an attorney, and Cammy, 38, is a hairdresser—were reared in tiny Irmo, S.C. Their father, Carlos, 72, a former state superintendent of education, now owns a local antique shop and cares for his wife. After graduating from the University of South Carolina in 1978, Gibbons worked as a reporter in South Carolina, Texas and New York City before moving to L.A. in '84 to anchor Entertainment Tonight. "My mom and I made the cross-country trip together in a convertible," says Gibbons, who landed the Extra gig in 2000. "We laughed all the way."
Gibbons spoke with PEOPLE correspondent Vicki Sheff-Cahan in the Hollywood Hills home she shares with her architect husband, Stephen Meadows, 51, and their kids Lexi, 12, Troy, 10, and Nathan, 4.
When my mom was in her late 50s, she began showing subtle signs of what we found out years later was Alzheimer's disease. She would repeat the same stories—a conversation with her sister, the home tour she had taken. We thought it was her way of reliving joyful experiences or that she didn't remember which kid she'd told the stories to. The symptoms began to get more obvious about seven years ago. I had taken her to dinner one night, and as I was paying, she went outside and sat in the wrong car. Another time, when she was visiting in 1997, 1 came downstairs and she was standing in the hall, saying, "Where do I go? Do I have a room here?"
Then my vivacious and fearless mother was suddenly uncomfortable in social situations. At parties she would pull at the neck of her dress or wring her hands and stay off to herself. It may sound strange that we didn't put two and two together, but for much of the time she didn't seem out of it. She was hiding it very well, which I now know is common with people in the early stage of Alzheimer's. She would disarm us by making jokes about being forgetful. We wanted to believe that she was just stressed, and we didn't want to be rude or embarrass her by saying, "Mom, you already told us that."
It was Mom herself who forced us to face the truth. She had always run the household. She never forgot a birthday and could spot a crumb on the carpet four rooms away. One day in the summer of 1999 she told my dad, "I've paid the electric bill three times. Something is wrong."
He made a doctor's appointment. Deep down, I think we knew it was serious. My brother and his wife and I flew home to be with her for the tests. I felt so helpless as she walked down the hall to the doctor's office. She looked like a lost little girl. The doctor called us in and gave her the diagnosis that we had feared most: Alzheimer's.
After we left the office, she told us kids, "If it gets to the point where I am begging you not to put me in a home, it's the disease talking, not me. While I'm in my right mind I want you to know that I don't want to live with, or be a burden to, any of you."
She was being unselfish, but she was terrified. At the time her own mother was in the last stages of Alzheimer's. My mom and aunt took care of Granny, but when she needed full-time care, she went into a nursing home. I remember how quiet my mom was at Granny's funeral. It must have been her darkest day—four months earlier she had been diagnosed with the same disease.
The doctors put Mom on Aricept, one of the few approved Alzheimer's drugs, and Prozac, which made her less anxious. Anxiety is a hallmark of the disease. They said she could live at home in Irmo for a while if we simplified things for her as much as possible. So we labeled everything in the kitchen, and she and I went through her clothes, keeping only things in solid colors to make dressing less confusing. She refused to part with one item: a sexy, leopard-print bathing suit. She told me jokingly, "You don't know what I might be doing when you're not here."
A few weeks later I asked her what it felt like to have Alzheimer's, and she said, "Sometimes it feels like a fog and it gets so thick."
Mom is in the second stage of the disease now. She wanders, and it isn't safe to leave her alone. Fortunately, we can afford to pay for home care, unlike many other families. We brought in two wonderful, full-time caregivers. My mom never felt dressed without perfume and lipstick, and they make sure that she wears both. She still recognizes her immediate family, but when we were home over Thanksgiving, my sister brought her new baby and Mom wasn't sure who he belonged to. She had waited her whole life for grandchildren and now she doesn't look at them but past them. When they hug her, she sometimes doesn't hug back.
My kids asked me if she still loves them. I said she may forget your names, but she won't ever forget your importance to her. The hardest thing is when they ask when she'll get better and I have to tell them she won't. At bedtime, they ask God to help her to not be so scared.
These days I worry about my dad. The burden on caretakers, both physically and emotionally, is unrelenting. He sets out her clothes and her medication, then goes to work. He comes home to have lunch with her, spends every evening with her and bears the brunt of her hostility and agitation. One minute she's loving, the next angry. Sometimes when he's giving her the medication, she'll say, "I know you're just trying to hurt me. You really don't care about me." My dad says, "Intellectually I understand it's the disease, but emotionally it's hard to take the things she says to me."
Alzheimer's is also devastating on the practical side. It can break families' bank accounts as well as their spirits. It's estimated that 14 million Americans will be stricken with the disease by 2050. I urge all families to plan for long-term care. It was so hard to approach my dad with questions about their finances. It was harder still for him to ask for help. But he told me that receiving love and help from his children has been a transforming experience.
My daughter asks me if I'll get Alzheimer's and I tell the truth: I have no idea. I'm not naive. Like my mother, I have a hopeful heart but a healthy dose of realism. I remember sitting on the porch with her during storms. When thunder clapped, she would say, "Listen, honey, God is rearranging the furniture." We don't have many storms in L.A., but when it rains, I miss my mother most.