Last year, B. Smith and Dan Gasby– her husband of 23 years, made an announcement that shocked all of us who have followed her career. The ground breaking model, restauranteur, businesswoman, TV host, and author has Alzheimer's disease.
An icon in the African American community, B. Smith now joins the more than 5 million people living with Alzheimer's disease, and Dan the more than 15 million caregivers in this country. The slow, progressive nature of her illness made the diagnosis tough. Not to mention, B. is one of just a mere 5% of people with Alzheimer’s that experience symptoms before the age of 65. Dan admits that there were times when he didn't want to believe something was wrong.
"There were many times that we'd try to explain it away."
But after noticing more signs that "Sweetie" as he affectionately calls her, began to lose and misplace more things of his and she started repeating herself, he felt something was wrong.
"I knew this was not just from working 20 hours a day, or burnout, or needing a vacation, there [was] something going on."
Dan says it was at that point they decided to be proactive and seek the best medical care possible. After amyloid plaque testing last year suggested that early onset Alzheimer's was the likely diagnosis, they realized that they had one of two options.
"We could have either put our heads in the sand to shrink back, or we could take a stand a make a difference." he said.
Dan cites the motivation behind coming forward as being the taboo nature of so many health issues in the African American community. As a community, he feels that we are often too afraid to admit when there's an issue.
"Barbara and I have always believed that the shortest distance between two points is the truth."
Understanding that Alzheimer's can affect judgment and decision making, Dan has now had to become his wife's primary caregiver. When asked, B. loves the fact that he is her caregiver and that they have simply found a new way to work together. However, having been partners in life, love, and business for years, making the transition into the role of caregiver was at times bumpy.
"Sometimes she gets angry at me because I have to tell her 'no,' and that never was the case before," said Dan."But she knows she just has to trust me."
Dan likens it to being on an airplane with some turbulence. Recognizing there would be some ups and downs as the captain in charge, he is now learning to manage what he's dealing with while finding the path to a smooth landing. Dan recalls one of the first highly publicized hurdles he had as a caregiver, when B. went missing for over 17 hours as the worst day of his life.
It was the outpouring of love and support that helped get him through the waiting period until she was found.
He said: “We had people calling and going out looking for her because she is so loved."
To be able to see firsthand just how she has impacted and made a difference in the lives of others, helped Dan to realize just how special she is to the world.
Dan said, "She doesn't belong to me, she belongs to society."
Caregivers can sometimes find themselves facing their own physical, emotional, and mental health crises as their needs become secondary to their loved ones. Commonly known as Caregiver Syndrome, hallmark signs may include exhaustion, frustration, guilt, irritability, withdrawal from friends and family, and overall feelings of sadness and depression. When asked how he keeps himself healthy, Dan says he has help around the house and makes sure that he has some alone time walking the dog and working out. Most importantly, he speaks of the importance of letting out his frustration and wishes more of us would do the same.
"We don't want to show any weaknesses," he said. "But there's nothing wrong with talking to a professional about your frustration and the things you can't change, and learning how to modify and manage them."
As for now, they are taking one moment at a time, and there are no signs of B. slowing down anytime soon. Dan reports her health is good and that she is as fit as a "world class athlete."
B. adds, "I'm doing great. I feel good, and I like what I do when I'm doing it."
They are anticipating the release of a book in January chronicling their journey and they also plan to continue traveling and raising awareness about Alzheimer's disease. Dan is also committed to recognizing the importance of caregivers in the community. In fact, they've recently partnered with the Caregiver Action Network and have started the #Take1Moment campaign to recognize caregivers of loved ones living with Alzheimer's for the tireless work that they do each day. The campaign is asking people to #Take1Moment to share a memory or picture of someone they know or knew with Alzheimer's disease on social media.
For each of the first 1,000 hashtags, the campaign will provide a thank you meal from Chef'd, a gourmet, fresh ingredient meal-kit delivery service, to a caregiver identified by the Caregiver Action Network.
"It's like a club we're in," says Dan. "We've been blessed to take a very difficult situation and give back."
After 23 years of marriage, Dan says that B. continues to have her keen sense of humor and infectious laugh and that he can still see glimpses of the woman he built his life with.
"The ways she looks at me at times, lets me know that we can have ups and downs sometimes, but deep down she's still my girl."
The couple is resigned to holding out hope for a cure. With continued activism and advocacy, Dan feels his goal is within reach and Alzheimer’s can be a thing of the past.
"We're going to go after this thing. We're going to fight. Ten years from now, I want young people asking, 'What's Alzheimer's?'"
Dr. Karla and Dr. Rob are the founders of Urban Housecall, a multimedia health and wellness resource, and also hosts of the Urban Housecall Radio show. For more from the doctors, visit their website at www.urbanhousecall.com, like them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter @urbanhousecall!