Actor discusses the importance of tough talks for families facing Alzheimer’s
Emmy Award-winning actor Kyle Chandler has a vivid memory of the moment he told his mother, Sally Chandler, that he wanted to pursue a career in television and film. He was 19, and drove home from college at the University of Georgia early in the morning. He nervously approached his mom, expecting her to dismiss his commitment to a path that typically offers little stability and lots of disappointment.
“We sat down in the living room and I said, ‘Mom, I need to talk to you. I know what I want to do. I want to be an actor,’” Chandler recalls. “She said, ‘Yeah, I figured as much. That makes sense. You know what? If that’s a dream of yours, you need to follow your dreams.’”
Chandler, well-known for his roles on NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” Netflix’s “Bloodline” and this summer’s blockbuster film “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” has an equally vivid memory of the moment he realized his mother had Alzheimer’s. In 2004, he took Sally to the Olympics in Japan, where he was appearing for work. They were mingling in a large room when she needed to use the restroom.
“She left and probably went 40 yards out of some double doors, and I waited and waited for her. And then I saw Mom standing in the doorway, confused, looking out at this giant room. I had never seen that look before,” says Chandler. “And everything clicked right there. All of the little questions I had came together. And I just knew.”
An undeniable diagnosis
When they returned home, Chandler accompanied his mother to the doctor, where she received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Months later, Chandler made a heartbreaking discovery: his mother’s journal, with the word “Alzheimer’s” written over and over in different spellings, so she could remember what she had.
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Chandler wasn’t surprised by the diagnosis — he had seen small signs in Sally for months: memory loss, frustration getting things done around the house, phone conversations with conflicting information. These experiences didn’t add up when he thought of his mother, an introspective, well-read and educated woman with a wonderfully dark sense of humor.
“She was the one in the room who was always very quiet, and then someone would say, ‘Sally, what do you think?’ and of course they’d listen to her,” says Chandler. “She was nobody’s fool.”
A family facing the disease
For Chandler, the diagnosis signaled the need for some difficult conversations about his mother’s care and planning for the future. He spoke directly with his mother, as well as his three older siblings, Brian, Ed and Kelcey, and his wife, Kathryn. “Alzheimer’s makes people realize that there are responsibilities that need to be taken. It is a game changer emotionally. It’s very expensive, time-wise and financially,” says Chandler. “It requires people to do special things. I call it big-boy or big-girl stuff, it’s stuff that there’s no book that tells you what to do.”
Chandler assumed primary responsibility for his mother’s care. When he relocated from Los Angeles to Austin with his wife and two daughters, Sally moved into a memory care facility near their ranch. Experiencing her decline was painful, but Chandler gained some valuable insights.
“It was difficult on all of us as a young family, yet rewarding. Unfortunately, you have to go through these times in life to understand the rewards,” Chandler says. “Mom did the best she could for all of us. I tried my best to do the same for her.”
Chandler often felt grateful for the conversation he had with his mother about her wishes, as it grounded him and gave him direction as the disease progressed.
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“There would be times when she would say, ‘I don’t want to be here’ or ‘I don’t want that.’ But I had the fallback of that earlier conversation,” says Chandler. “It was tough but it was something to grab onto.”
Chandler is also grateful for his wife’s unwavering support, which allowed him to focus on his mom during her 10-year battle with the disease. “It wasn’t just my dedication to my mom. It was my wife’s, too,” says Chandler. “When I couldn’t be there, she sat with Mom. And when I was with Mom, she was raising our daughters.”
Sally passed away in 2014, with Chandler and his brother Brian at her side. Chandler knew it was time to let her go. “As she declined, she became in my mind someone who was trying to get out and say hello,” he says. “So I didn’t feel sad. I actually felt happy for her, because I knew she didn’t want to go through this.”
Chandler encourages other families facing an Alzheimer’s diagnosis to have the tough conversations while you still can.
“When Mom passed, the big thing that hit me was: Did I do what I was supposed to do? You can never do enough,” Chandler says. “But for gosh sakes, while you’ve got your mom and your dad, take care of financial and medical matters. Discuss power of attorney and find out in the family who is going to do these things. You’ll be glad you did."
Photos by Robert Trachtenberg.