Leeza Gibbons aims to bring her passion for Alzheimer’s caregivers back home

jholleman@thestate.comDecember 8, 2013 

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    Go online to leezasplace.org for resources for Alzheimer’s caregivers.

To the rest of the country, she might be television personality Leeza Gibbons, but to the Columbia area, she’s the local girl who made it big.

And Gibbons — a graduate of Irmo High School and the University of South Carolina — still feels that strong connection to the area. That’s one reason it irks her that she hasn’t been able to establish a Midlands home for her passion — Leeza’s Care Connection.

A nonprofit Gibbons set up operates four Leeza’s Care Connection facilities to help caregivers for Alzhiemer’s patients. They’re in Los Angeles, Burbank, Calif., Joliet, Ill., and Pembroke Pines, Fla.

Gibbons spent a portion of her most recent visit home last week trying to drum up support for a Leeza’s Care Connection in the Midlands. “I’m beyond hopeful; I’m bound and determined,” Gibbons said after speaking at USC Tuesday. “It would be shameful not to have this as part of our family legacy.”

Gibbons’ grandmother and mother had Alzheimer’s, the cruel disease that steals memories. Family members performed the difficult task of caring for them as they slipped behind Alzheimer’s dark curtain. Along the way, Gibbons began using her public visibility as a talk show host to publicize the need for help for those caregivers. “This is a situation that can break you. It is unbearably cruel.”

With access to resources and an optimistic attitude, however, caregivers can get through the difficult times. That’s where Leeza’s Care Connection comes in, offering a place where caregivers can share success stories, learn from others or just find a shoulder to lean on.

“We created what we wished we had when my mom went through her journey,” Gibbons said. “Our job is to help (caregivers) find the resources in their community.”

Some of the resources available at the Leeza’s Care Connection facilities can be found online at leezasplace.org. But it’s not the same as the face-to-face interaction at the Leeza’s Care Connection facilities. The facilities’ mantra is “breathe, believe, receive.” The organization’s goal is for caregivers to say: “Today, I will exhale knowing that I am not alone.”

“You have the choice to be optimistic,” Gibbons said. “And if you are optimistic, you will manage the stress better.”

Gibbons said when she started her caregiver outreach, she envisioned Leeza’s Care Connections being all over the country. Then she discovered how difficult it is for nonprofits to raise money. To avoid financial pitfalls, she won’t start a new facility unless she has raised three years worth of operating expenses — or around $250,000-300,000.

The four existing Leeza’s Care Connection facilities are connected with hospitals, and that might be the way to go in the Midlands, too. But Gibbons also has been talking with USC officials because her group’s goals fit well with the aging programs and research at the Arnold School of Public Health.

A journalism school alumnus, Gibbons also envisions students there helping with memory videos filmed soon after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Those videos can help dementia patients as they lose memories.

Much of Gibbons’ extended family remains in the Midlands. While she enjoys trips home to visit relatives, she hopes to someday have a local non-profit operation to check on during those visits. “It hurts my heart every time I come home that we do not have a Leeza’s Care Connection here.”

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