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A Pirouette From Student to Caregiver

A Pirouette From Student to Caregiver
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Spring 2022
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Carissa Kranz opens home to longtime ballet instructor living with Alzheimer’s

The watch band around Carissa Kranz’s wrist is etched with one word: NOW. This is a simple reminder, not of the time, but of her approach to caring for Joan Miller, her former ballet instructor who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2013. The band reminds Carissa to return to the present moment, which is where Joan resides.

“Miss Joan,” as she was known to her students, was an institution in the national dance community. A perfectionist with exacting standards, Joan oversaw every aspect of Palm Beach Ballet Center in Lake Park, Florida, for more than a half century.

“She was a dance diva,” says Carissa. “She was always very loved and revered because she was someone that demanded so much respect. She taught me that reaching my potential was not an option but a responsibility.”

From age 6 through high school, Carissa danced under Joan’s instruction on scholarship, eventually becoming one of her star performers. “The school was like a second home to me. She trained me my whole life and my mom was one of her studio instructors,” she says.

Sharing the stage

As a young woman, Carissa was accepted into the American Ballet Theatre in New York and considered a career as a professional dancer. Instead, she chose to go to college, eventually becoming a successful journalist and lawyer, a decision she worried had disappointed Joan.

A little over a decade after she graduated from Palm Beach Ballet Center, Carissa was shocked to learn that the studio had fallen on hard times and was forced to close its doors. When she went looking for answers, she was rattled by what she discovered.

“Joan was always around a lot of people and I assumed that they were just going to step up,” Carissa says. But without any family or advocates offering her support, Joan, who was living in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, had been sent to a nursing home after her home was foreclosed. Upon visiting Joan, Carissa became concerned that she was receiving inadequate care.

Determined to help, Carissa returned to see Joan frequently, often taking her for a walk along the beach or back to her house to watch dance videos together. Carissa’s ability to balance outings with Joan and a taxing career at a top corporate law firm soon proved to be too much.

In 2013, in search of more flexibility, she left her job to start her own personal injury law firm. At Joan’s request, Carissa assumed her power of attorney, and Carissa invited her former ballet teacher to move into her second bedroom — becoming Joan’s full-time caregiver at age 29.

“I promised her I’d never put her back in a nursing home if I could make it work,” says Carissa. “You do the right thing, and while sometimes you don’t know how you’re going to make it happen, you just know you have to make it happen.”

Performing a duet

Carissa and Joan have shared a home for nearly a decade. Early on, the two women could discuss the disease and even joke about Joan’s new, out-of-character forgetfulness. As time went on, Carissa watched the disease steal her mentor’s verve, sense of place and independence.

“She had sewn a thousand tutu hook and eyes in the most precise position, and then she couldn’t hook a bra anymore,” Carissa says. “I went through a whole unraveling of her ability to do the most simple of tasks.”

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As with any progressive disease, the sense of normal is constantly shifting for everyone involved. After Joan was seriously injured in a fall last year, she entered hospice care. She is currently stable in hospice, and Carissa remains responsible for her care.

Embracing their encore

Today, Joan is still teaching Carissa in ways that neither could have imagined when they practiced dance together in the studio.

“What Alzheimer’s has taught me and what she has taught me is that the time is now,” Carissa says. “Through all stages of the disease, we may have been in disagreement about what just happened, or about what’s about to happen, but we would always be in agreement on right now, which is all that really matters.”

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