From Momisms to “Dancing with the Stars,” Gibbons captivated attendees with personal stories, her journey with her mom’s Alzheimer’s, and the importance of fierce optimism and resilience
National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month and National Caregivers Month were recognized in a grand way on November 18 at the Juliette Fowler Communities Visionary Women Luncheon at the Omni Dallas Hotel. The annual luncheon, which featured Leeza Gibbons and the Visionary Women Award recipient AWARE, was originally scheduled for May of 2020 but postponed due to the pandemic. Without question, it was worth the wait for those in attendance.
A sea of purple, the official color of the Alzheimer’s movement, could be seen as guests walked toward the ballroom through an artwork display presented by the Junior League of Dallas (JLD). The carefully placed easels, each highlighting unique works completed by residents with dementia at Fowler Communities, also included unique messages about the uplifting experience each resident had while creating the art. The program, called “Artful Awakenings,” is a powerful, weekly art program which has been led by members of JLD since 2017.
Many guests stopped to greet Gibbons and have her sign her 2009 book, “Take Your Oxygen First: Protecting Your Health and Happiness While Caring for a Loved One with Memory Loss,” in whichGibbons shares her family's personal struggle with Alzheimer’s disease after her mother's diagnosis and provides practical advice to caregivers on how to care for their own needs.
Using her experiences hosting, producing, and reporting for shows such as “Entertainment Tonight, the PBS show “My Generation,” and her own talk show, “LEEZA,” Gibbons became an instrumental advocate for healthcare, wellness and caregiving, ultimately becoming a social entrepreneur creating Leeza’s Care Connection. A nonprofit located in California and South Carolina, Leeza’s Care Connection offers free services and support to help families cope when facing a chronic illness or disease.
Luncheon Chair Michelle Feavel kicked off the event by thanking Honorary Luncheon Chairs Mary and Roland Bandy and all the attendees, including sponsors – each of whom donated their sponsorship in full when the pandemic caused the luncheon to be cancelled in 2020. Sharing her positive experiences at Fowler, first as a volunteer and then a board member, she highlighted the theme of the luncheon, That’s My Why.
“At Fowler, I have witnessed the genuine care, love and concern afforded every resident,” said Feavel. “This level of care and concern at Fowler is My Why – why my husband and I have chosen to invest at Fowler.”
Chairman of the Board Ben Brooks then presented awards to this year’s three recipients: Miranda Sullivan, the Juliette Fowler Faith and Service Award; Deloitte, the Erika McKenzie Volunteer Award; and AWARE, the Visionary Women Award. Sullivan, a recent graduate of Texas Christian University who exemplifies the spirit of Juliette Fowler, was honored for her leadership and excellence on campus and in the community. Deloitte was honored for 20 years of volunteer service during Impact Day, its companywide day of service. AWARE was honored for its philanthropic leadership in support of Alzheimer's care and research.
“AWARE’s impact at Fowler has been transformational through their support of music and art therapy programs, their funding of our I’m Still Here Center for Excellence in Dementia Care, and their extraordinary advocacy for individuals living with dementia, and their care partners, through Dementia Friendly Dallas,” said Ben Brooks.
Following lunch – a macerated fig salad, pecan encrusted chicken breast, and lemon meringue tart and classic cheesecake – JFC’s President and CEO Nicole Gann took the stage to share her Why. Recapping the passion of Juliette Peak Fowler, JFC’s founder 129 years ago, Gann shared that Juliette was Fowler’s first Visionary Woman and is also credited with being Dallas’ first philanthropist, whose choice was always to serve and help others.
“Today, Fowler remains intergenerational, and we are still looking out into the community just as Juliette did, asking ‘Who needs our help?’” said Gann. “That’s My Why.”
Gann highlighted recent accomplishments at Fowler including the groundbreaking of 144 new apartments for the “Forgotten Middle”– those seniors who do not qualify for traditional affordable housing and cannot afford other senior living options available. She thanked the women of AWARE and others for their support enabling JFC to expand services for those with dementia and their care partners. JFC is the only certified I’m Still Here® Center for Excellence in Dementia Care in North Texas and one of only two in Texas.
Gann introduced Leeza Gibbons and NBC 5’s News Anchor/Medical Reporter Bianca Castro, who took the stage for “A Conversation with Leeza Gibbons.” Gibbons began by highlighting her early days working in Dallas, calling Texas her adopted home state.
“It was the 80s, and Dallas was at its prime. I remember being at Southfork many times for interviews, and there was Billy Bobs and Urban Cowboy – but what drew me to Dallas was the chance to work for then WFAA News Director Marty Haag,” said Gibbons.
She explained that her Barbies were named after news reporters – Nancy Dickerson and Barbara Walters, and “they ran newsrooms and covered global affairs.” While Gibbons was a freshman at University of South Carolina, Barbara Walters had been made the first female anchor of the nightly news, and Gibbons knew she wanted to explore this field.
As the conversation shifted to a focus on caregivers, Gibbons talked about the need to be resilient. “Optimism is a strategic advantage in life. When you are optimistic, your brain gets you to a solution more quickly.” She talked about having the Tigger effect. “You must bounce forward to the next thing...resilience is key.”
Gibbons shared that her Why is her mother and her grandmother. “My mother was so courageous in her journey. She was a strong Southern woman who drank sweet, iced tea, said yes ma’am and mixed bourbon with her Coke, and she was my biggest supporter.”
But the day of her mom’s diagnosis, “my music completely stopped.” She was hosting her talk show, growing her family, business was perfect. “But change comes for all of us. My family went to their own corners. My sister was depressed, my brother in denial, and my dad sat in a corner with wine looking at pictures of my mom. I decided to get busy. I’m going to fix this. I’m going to travel and interview doctors, and I will figure this out.”
When Gibbons told her mother she didn’t know what to do, it was her mom that told her, “You have spent your life telling stories. Go tell this.”
“That’s my Why,” said Gibbons. “If you don’t reveal it, you can’t heal it. I started a foundation to help families like mine.” For those that did not share her vision telling her this would not help her career, she “subtracted them” from her life.
Her mother had told her early on, “When I kick and scream and can’t call you by name” that’s when you know it’s time to make a change. “It’s time to help Daddy let me go.” Her mom then pulled out a brochure and said, “This is the kind of place I’d like to be.”
“We didn’t have guilt because of this,” continued Gibbons. “We pulled together early as a unit, making these decisions early. This helps keep families from falling apart.”
Castro asked Gibbons why she has referred to her mother as her Jiminy Cricket. Gibbons shared some of her mom’s favorite momisms: “Pretty is as pretty does – pretty always does something; Don’t be too big for your britches; and It’s a poor frog that doesn’t praise its own pond.” Her mother always kept her balanced.
Gibbons then talked about her experience on “Dancing with the Stars” as one of the “dumbest things” she ever did. The day she was supposed to dance the mambo was her shared birthday with her mom, who was in a skilled nursing home at that time.
“When the announcer on the show said, ‘Dancing the mambo – Leeza Gibbons and her partner Tony Dovolani, I wanted to throw up and it still gives me post traumatic stress,” said Gibbons. “But I decided to dance and celebrate my mother and families who feel like they don’t have anything to dance for. I’m a control enthusiast, but you can’t lead on the dance floor. You must wait for the music and for your partner to move, and then you react and respond. This experience taught me to focus on what is left and not what is lost. “Dancing with the Stars” gave me a better appreciation for living in the present.”
Gibbons then highlighted the journey of the caregiver and her work with Leeza’s Care Connection as a place to come, get a hug, a cup of coffee. “We need community, and I love the intergenerational community at Fowler Communities. We connect to resources; help you call on your courage and summon your strength. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Touching on her time on “Celebrity Apprentice,” she shared that she was apprehensive about doing it but proved everyone wrong by winning it. She recalled her mom saying, ‘Nice girls can finish first. Put your blinders on and don’t look at the others.’”
After winning “Celebrity Apprentice,” Gibbons took her earnings and invested them in her hometown, Columbia, South Carolina, to support family caregivers at her flagship Leeza’s Care Connection location.
Castro closed the conversation by asking Gibbons what she would want others to know.
Gibbons concluded, “Hemingway said, ‘The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.’” She said that she does not agree with this. “I think the world tests everyone, but if you are flexible and forgiving, you don’t have to break.”
Luncheon media sponsors were CultureMap Dallas and NBC 5. Proceeds benefit Fowler’s One Heart Fund to support residents’ greatest needs. To support Fowler, go to www.fowlercommunities.org/donate-now
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Juliette Fowler Communities is a unique faith-based, intergenerational community of residents at various life-stages. Located on 20 picturesque acres, Juliette Fowler Communities provides independent and assisted living, a Five-Star Quality Rated skilled nursing and rehabilitation center, memory care and affordable senior housing. As the only certified I’m Still Here® Center for Excellence in Dementia Care in North Texas and one of only two in Texas, Fowler’s program employs evidence-based techniques to adapt experiences to an individual’s cognitive abilities and strengths. It has also been named a Great Place to Work in the Aging Services Industry in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021. Children, youth, and family services at Fowler include foster and adoption services, a residential program for women ages 18-24 at risk for homelessness due to neglect, abuse, and aging out of the foster care system, and a new Youth Support Center – a one-stop location to help Dallas youth, both boys and girls ages 12-24, escape or avoid human trafficking and exploitation. Visit fowlercommunities.org or call 214.827.0813.