We talked with Autumn Chiklis about her musical bond with her paternal grandmother, who passed away with Alzheimer’s, and about how the Chiklis family has started a new open mic event in their Nana’s honor as part of the Alzheimer's Association fundraising event The Longest Day.
Autumn, during lockdown your family and friends stayed connected through a weekly open mic night. Tell us about how this new tradition came to be.
Chikchella has been a light for my family through this dark period. Early on in the pandemic — specifically, the weekend that the California music festival Coachella was supposed to take place — my family and I started hosting a virtual open mic for our friends and family. Anyone who wanted to perform could bring a song, poem, photograph series, monologue — anything they wanted to share via Zoom.
How often in life do we get to perform for an audience who we know will support us, and cheer us on? During this period of extreme isolation, Chikchella provided a much needed sense of community, and a safe space for people to share their art. Friends started inviting more friends, ‘regulars’ began emerging, and suddenly, a group of virtual strangers became a very tight-knit family.
Last summer, you used one particular Chikchella to honor your Nana and raise awareness and funds for the Alzheimer’s Association event The Longest Day. Share your favorite moments from the event.
We knew we wanted to get creative for The Longest Day in honor of Nana, who we lost to Alzheimer’s in 2019. The Longest Day was a particularly special Chikchella, packed with so many memorable moments. We were able to expand our list of performers, including more friends who’ve also been affected by Alzheimer’s personally.
Peter Gallagher shared a remarkable story about his mother, followed by his daughter Kathryn singing a song written in her honor. Randi Singer — an extraordinary writer, whose mother is battling Alzheimer’s — read a piece about her experience that made me burst into tears. Gina Belafonte opened with a goosebump-inducing rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. Honestly, the list goes on and on!
Tell us about Nana. What are some of your favorite memories of her?
Some of my favorite memories of my Nana are actually also some of the least consequential: The way she’d smile with her whole face; her front teeth crossing over just a bit. How she would literally stop to smell the flowers and how she knew the names of every one of them. The texture of her white hair. Her hugs.
Those small, precious moments are what spring to mind when I look back on our time together. But more than anything else, I remember her voice. When she spoke, it was musical, and when she sang, it was whimsical and breathtaking.
What did music mean in your Nana’s life, and how did she pass her love of it down to you?
Music was deeply embedded in my Nana’s soul. Whether she was gardening, whipping up something in the kitchen, or just lounging on the back porch, Nana would trill these gorgeous melodies that carried through the whole house. It was clearly the way she expressed her deepest thoughts and feelings.
Nana studied to be an opera singer, and though she never pursued it professionally, it remained a significant part of her life until the end. Even in the last couple years of her life, when she could no longer speak or accomplish the simplests tasks on her own, she would sing along when others did.
While I may not have inherited the opera gene, I love to sing on my own. Over the course of this pandemic, I’ve found myself singing more than I ever have before. When I’m excited, lonely, melancholy, pensive, or just don’t know what to say, it comes out in music. That’s probably why I love musicals — sometimes, feelings are so overwhelming, you just want to sing them. A number of times over the past year, I’ve thought, “Huh. I finally understand you, Nana.”
What were the earliest signs of the disease that your family observed?
I was too young to understand what was wrong, or to notice any of the earliest signs. My dad had already explained her diagnosis to me by the time her symptoms presented themselves in a significant way.
Dad first became alarmed when he noticed Nana struggling to use a sink. It was only for a few moments, but she was pulling up on the tap instead of turning it. Once she realized Dad was watching, she immediately snapped out of it, but he knew there was something seriously wrong at that point.
I wish I had known all the ways this disease would affect her, and that it isn’t just forgetting your experiences. It means forgetting how to take care of yourself as well. My vision of Alzheimer's was of an older person asking a loved one who they are. I knew that Nana would likely forget who I am, but didn’t know she would forget how everyday objects worked. It was not of someone staring at keys blankly, or not knowing how to pick up a fork.
What advice would you give others facing Alzheimer’s as we all continue to face the COVID-19 pandemic?
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of connection and togetherness in ways we couldn’t have imagined. I believe it made our priorities clearer than ever, and showed us who in our lives we value most.
Surround yourself with a strong, supportive and loving community, even if it’s just virtual for now. During times of difficulty, as well as times of joy, having people to call and commiserate or laugh (or even sing) with is vital.
How would you encourage other young people to get involved with the Alzheimer’s Association in the fight to end Alzheimer’s?
There are so many ways to get involved, but a wonderful starting point is to participate in The Longest Day. There’s no better way to fundraise than by making it personal and fun! Whether your passion is baking, running, painting, gardening, fishing, dancing, or karaoke — why not turn it into a vehicle for good?
About: In addition to her accomplishments as an actress (“The Shield”) and Alzheimer’s Association Champion, Autumn wrote the L.A. Times bestselling book “Smothered,” which is based on her life. She is currently writing a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Learn more about Chikchella 2021.
We are looking forward to the performances the Chiklis family and friends will be showcasing on June 20. How will you be celebrating The Longest Day? Let us know in the comments.
Art, Music and Alzheimer’s