'Taking this journey together': 6 lessons I learned as my dad's Alzheimer's caregiver

Actress Yvette Nicole Brown honors her dad for Father's Day and Alzheimer's & Brain Awareness Month.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Yvette Nicole Brown is an actress and Alzheimer's Association Celebrity Champion. Known for her roles on NBC's “Community” and the film “Avengers: Endgame,” she is currently hosting the new Disney+ children’s game show “The Big Fib.”

Yvette Nicole Brown shares a happy moment with her father, Omar.Courtesy Yvette Nicole Brown

I always had a close relationship with my father, one of the loveliest of men. Then six years ago, there were signs that something was wrong.

When Dad was still living in Ohio and I would call him from Los Angeles, it seemed like bits of him were slipping away. I was on the television show “Community” at the time and we were coming to the end of the season. I said to myself, “I’m just going to go get him.” I packed his home up and brought him to California. Eventually, a neurologist diagnosed him with Alzheimer’s disease.

Making him safe and getting him a diagnosis is the hardest thing I've ever done. That day I went to get him, he was at his worst. Today, I look for the good in the bad, and I am always learning.

Here's what I want everyone to know:

1. Some days are better than others

Dad seemed to pick a certain time frame in his life that he remembered better than others and his mind camped out there. His sweet spot is around ages 15 to 25. I didn’t exist at that point in his life, so any time he shares something from when I was a baby or when I was in high school, I know a door that was previously closed has been opened back up. It’s like the glimmer of hope for any caregiver: Tomorrow can always be a better day. I cling to that, no matter how bad today is.

2. Appreciate special moments

I don’t know how much longer I’m going to have my Dad in my life, so I soak up as much time as I have with him. One blessing is that he still has an amazing sense of humor, which has made this entire experience a joy. I know that sounds like a strange thing to say — it’s such a horrible disease. But I am the one who gets to remind him of who people are and who he was. I know that if the situation were reversed, he would do the same for me. I savor those moments as they come.

"Today, for now, my Dad has me and I have him, and we are taking this journey together," Brown writes.Courtesy Yvette Nicole Brown

3. Embrace music

My Dad loves music. He used to be a bass singer in a doo-wop group! I now know how amazing music is for those living with Alzheimer’s. As we went through stacks of his records, deciding what to keep and what to donate, he would tell me a story about the first time he heard a particular record or why the singer was so amazing. Those stacks of records are like a living diary and he is still able to piece together memories of the past.

When I stream music from R&B singer Frankie Lymon, he immediately comes to life with stories from when he was a kid. I can almost see him relive those moments as he speaks about them, all encouraged by the music. He loves “The Five Heartbeats,” “The Temptations” and James Brown. He loves, loves, LOVES music. He always has and he still does. Today, we embrace music together.

4. Be open, be prepared

Because I’ve been open about my Dad’s diagnosis, I’ve been able to listen to other caregivers facing the disease. This is one way I found the resources I needed as a caregiver. Alzheimer’s is the kind of disease that makes you roll up your sleeves and get into the trenches. But you have to know what you're up against, and being prepared will make all the difference for you and your loved one.

When people tell me that their mom or dad is exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s, the first thing I tell them to do is to make sure they have the power of attorney in place. I told Dad, “I don’t want to control you. I want to know what your wishes are. I want to be able to immediately step in and take care of your finances and everything else, because there will be a time when you can no longer make those decisions on your own. I want to be prepared for both of us.”

5. Take care

My Dad’s dear sister Shirley took care of their father when he had Alzheimer's. Talking to my aunt about what it was like taking care of granddad made me scared for what was to come, but I also saw how she handled it so gracefully. She helped me feel equipped to embark on this journey with Dad and was the one who gave me the confidence to be vocal about his diagnosis. She was truly my godsend. (She has since passed away.)

Now, I always leave conversations with other caregivers by telling them to take care of themselves as well as the person with the disease. Yes, I've probably heard the phrase "self-care" more in the last six years than I've heard it in my entire life, and I know why. The littlest bit of respite can mean the difference between thriving and crashing. It’s a blessing to walk this path with your loved one as the keeper of their memories in their greatest time of need, but you also have to care for yourself.

Brown is one of the Alzheimer's Association's "Celebrity Champions," public figures who are using their voices to support the fight to end Alzheimer's disease.Courtesy Alzheimer's Association/Robert Tratchenberg

6. Fight back

Alzheimer’s is taking away the vibrancy of people we love. Becoming educated and informed about the disease will help us all fight it together. That's why I support the Alzheimer's Association. I am ready for a cure and I am willing to fight for it as long as I must, for my father and for yours.

Today, for now, my Dad has me and I have him, and we are taking this journey together. Some days he'll say, “Thanks for coming to get me.” It makes me happy he still is at a point where he understands that I saw his need and filled it, because that's what he did for me my entire life. I love you, Dad. Happy, happy Father’s Day.