Crystal Kung Minkoff joined “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” in Season 11, as the show's first Asian American cast member. Here, Crystal shares her experience with Alzheimer's, the disease that ultimately took her father’s life four years ago.
Tell us about your dad. What made him special?
Our family is Chinese, and I always think of Dad as his sign in the Chinese zodiac, the sheep. He embodied his zodiac qualities in the best possible ways. He was easy going, a family man, a good sport and always a team player.
Dad was simply an amazing person. He served in the Chinese army. He had the opportunity to come to the United States on a full scholarship to medical school in the 1960s, becoming a brilliant oral surgeon. He was never an old-school Chinese parent; he allowed his children to enjoy life as American kids. Losing him was one of the hardest experiences my family has ever faced.
What were some of the signs and symptoms of your dad’s disease?
My brother lives in Shanghai, and every few months when my mom would visit him, I’d invite my dad to spend time at my house to keep him busy. He would consistently forget which street I lived on during his drives to my newer house, and I’d say: “Why do you keep forgetting this?” I’ll admit, I was frustrated. At the time, my family didn't know that this was the onset of his disease.
Repetition was a huge sign with my dad. He would tell the same story once or twice over one dinner, which only became more frequent. I thought it was just due to his age.
In 2007, I noticed a lot more signs. I remember dad being very aloof on my wedding day. Our family thought this was him slowing down in retirement, disconnecting a little due to not working. He had an immigrant spirit, and he loved to work. While we did take Dad to see a couple of geriatricians, my family was still in denial — we didn’t want it to be real.
Then came the day: the renewal of his driver’s license. I helped him study for his written test. I was so desperate. I knew that if he failed, that this was the beginning of a permanent change in all our lives. And then it happened. He failed the test.
What do you wish you had known prior to your experience with Alzheimer’s?
Plan ten steps ahead, or you will always be chasing that next step.
As much as I would like to say otherwise, an Alzheimer’s journey doesn’t get better, and it is not an easy disease to navigate. My dad got lost, so we put locks on the doors. He did this, so we did that, and so on. We were always chasing the next step. You can avoid so many growing pains just by educating yourself and being prepared.
I know it is hard advice to hear at times, but this is advice I have given friends currently facing this disease in their family. Whatever you can do to prepare for the future, prepare now. Prepare today. Don’t ignore the signs. Use the resources that are available
, because you will need them.
Do you have a favorite memory with your dad?
As a super-close Chinese family, we would go to dim sum every week. We never missed a Sunday with family, so it’s not a one-time memory, but a family tradition full of memories that I’m so lucky to have.
Then I took it to another level as the child of a Chinese parent! I sat down with my dad in his living room during one of my mom's trips to China. At this point, we had already suspected something was wrong, but there was still a lot of denial. This is when I had Dad tell me all of his stories from his past, in case he forgot them later.
I wrote them all down. We sat talking for a few hours, about his parents who died in war torn China, his coming to America, working in the hospital. I captured his stories frantically, writing on a yellow legal pad. And even though I was doing this for a sad reason, I found out so much more about my dad because of it. Now I tell everyone to do this. I know this is something I will never regret doing for me, my dad and our family.
What has it been like to share your family’s experience with Alzheimer’s on the show?
I haven’t heard a lot of people speak about this disease publicly. It can be a very isolating experience.
Being a new cast member on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” the topic of Alzheimer’s naturally came up. It is part of my real life, my conversations, my deepest pain. It’s true reality. And as I talked about my family and what we were going through, I started getting messages from fans of the show, thanking me, letting me know that they felt seen and less alone in their battle. The things I've said on the show have resonated with people, and I feel so connected to people when I talk about these topics one-on-one.
One of the main reasons I talk about my experience is because my mom struggled as my dad’s primary caregiver, and we had to find a live-in caregiver to help. Through our journey, my family learned how important it is to care for the caregiver, and this is an important topic more people should be talking about.
What have you learned about yourself through the Real Housewives experience?
When I first joined the cast, I had no idea that fans of the show would feel like they knew me personally, especially after I opened up about my Alzheimer's connection. In fact, a lot of people message me as if we are already in the middle of a conversation!
I truly didn't realize the impact of speaking openly about my dad’s disease, or that I would reach all of these people facing some of the same scary situations in their family. Now that I have opened up publicly about my family's battle with his disease, I want to encourage others to do the same.
About: Crystal is the founder of Real Coco, a line of coconut products. Married to director Rob Minkoff, Crystal enjoys travel, fitness and cooking with her children.