Natalie Morales, journalist and West Coast anchor of NBC’s “Today” show, shares her family’s long battle with Alzheimer’s and why she continues to fight the disease as an Alzheimer’s Association Celebrity Champion.
How are you personally impacted by Alzheimer’s?
My mother-in-law, Kay Rhodes, was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s in her mid-50s and lived with the disease for 17 years. I’m 46 years old so that would be me in just a few years. Because of that, Alzheimer’s is always in the back of my mind and it’s certainly on my husband’s mind.
When did you first notice something was wrong with your mother-in-law?
Nearly 20 years ago, around the time my husband and I were getting married, we sent our wedding bands to Colorado where the ceremony was going to be held. Kay hid the rings because she was afraid somebody might break in and steal them. She hid them so well that she forgot where she put them. Actually, she didn’t even remember receiving them. Ultimately, we had to buy new bands. Ten years later my father-in-law found the original rings rolled up in a ball of socks in the very back of Kay’s drawer. Now we look at them and say, “OK, well they’re here, but she’s not with us anymore.” While she was able to so fiercely protect our wedding bands, we couldn’t stop Alzheimer’s coming in and taking her from us. Alzheimer’s is truly the ultimate thief.
What did you find to be the most difficult part about the disease?
My children don’t have memories of their grandmother being a lively, happy woman doing all the things that grandmothers do with their grandchildren. When my boys were really young, I took them to visit Kay in the facility where she was living and they were scared of her. It broke my heart to see that kind of reaction. I feel like she missed out on the most beautiful grandchildren, and it’s painful to think that she never really knew them with a healthy mind.
What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about Alzheimer’s?
I wish everyone knew that the person with the disease is still in there. There will be glimpses and glimmers of that person and personality you’ve always known and loved. Try to remember that they are still there and make sure to make every minute count.
What other advice would you give families facing the disease?
Alzheimer’s is especially difficult for caregivers. My father-in-law started having heart problems and a lot of other health issues because of the stress of taking care of my mother-in-law. I would say, reach out to the Alzheimer’s Association. As a caregiver, you need people. It’s a disease that we cannot face on our own — don’t be afraid to ask for help. You need the assistance and love of everybody around you.
Caring for someone with Alzheimer's or dementia comes with special challenges. We have resources to help.
You’re a longtime supporter of the Alzheimer’s Association. What does the organization mean to you?
When my father-in-law first embarked on his long caregiving journey, he didn’t know what the future would look like. The Alzheimer’s Association was the first one at his side, giving him information, lending an ear and providing support. They really came through. It gave me such comfort to know that in his time of need, the Association was there.
Are you hopeful for the future?
Absolutely. We know more about this disease than ever before. And it’s reassuring that the Alzheimer’s Association is helping to fuel so much of the research
that needs to be done to combat this public health crisis. By the year 2050, 14 million people are expected to be living with Alzheimer’s. It’s why I continue to fight this disease, and it’s why we must all stand up and do our part.
ALZ: A magazine of the Alzheimer's Association
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