How ghost hunting helped me be a better caregiver for my parents

Leslie Self
Ghost hunting requires the ability to listen and wait, something I've brought to caring for my mother with Alzheimer's, says paranormal investigator Leslie Self.Today

Leslie Self, 37, is a part-time pro bono paranormal investigator living in Craig, Colorado. When his 83-year-old father was diagnosed with colon cancer and his 76-year-old mother developed Alzheimer’s, he quit his full-time day job to care for them. He believes his sensitivity to the spiritual world helped guide him in his new role as caregiver. This is his story, as told to TODAY's Ben Popken.

Ghost hunting requires the ability to listen and wait, something I've brought to caring for my mother with Alzheimer's, says paranormal investigator Leslie Self.Today

When I was a kid I developed a bone disease and broke both my hips. At age 9 I was in a wheelchair for three years, then on crutches until I was 16. My parents, Hugh and Elaine, were retired and by my side the whole time. They took me on trips with my brother and sister and never made me feel different. 

So when my father and mother could no longer take care of themselves some years ago, I felt it was my time to give back.

I got into paranormal investigating in 2008 after watching “Ghost Hunters” on the Syfy channel. I got some of the same equipment and picked up cases through word of mouth and Facebook. It's awesome to help people understand when they hear scary sounds that sometimes it's just family trying to say "hi" from the other side. 

Like caregiving, ghost hunting can be hard work, but also very rewarding. Sometimes you find there's nothing paranormal, that it's a water heater. Most of the time, when I leave an investigation, the people aren't scared anymore. 

Leslie Self, left, with his mother and father, now deceased.Today

Ghost hunting requires the ability to listen and wait, something I've brought to caring for my mother with Alzheimer's. When you're asking questions in a paranormal investigation you're supposed to give at least 15 seconds to see if they respond. It's just like talking to someone with Alzheimer's. She's processing and then she answers. Other people might get frustrated, but after doing that for hours at a time in my investigations, it's become second nature when talking with my mother.

My paranormal work also helped trigger my mother's memory by connecting her to her own mother. My mom and I were watching TV by ourselves in grandma's old house in Missouri when all of a sudden I smelled cigarette smoke and bacon coming from the other room — the way the house smelled when my grandmother was cooking breakfast. 

Then, without me saying anything, my mom said, “I smell cigarettes; it smells like someone's cooking.”

I set up my equipment, including a device called a “Frank's Box” — a combination white noise generator and AM radio scanner that plays snippets of audio from radio stations, allowing the dead to communicate with us. 

I asked if my grandmother was with us.

“I'm right here beside you," a voice said through the device.

"How can that be," my mom asked.

"This is what I do," I said.

Then we both talked about how much we missed grandma. 

Leslie holds an electromagnetic field meter, a device used by ghost hunters.Today

It stuck with mom for quite a few days, which was impressive. Like many Alzheimer's patients she has trouble recalling things from day to day. But she kept saying, “That's just so precious if it that really was Mom.” 

It was really heartwarming that I could do that for her.

I do feel guilty when I have to leave my mother to go on a paranormal investigation, although my brother Laine or sister Diona help. That's one thing I've learned over three-and-a-half years: caregivers need a break too. It can weigh on you emotionally if you don’t do something you enjoy. When you come back, your mind is refreshed.

Some other caregiving advice I can share: 



The Visiting Nurse Association and hospice care workers gave me books like “The 36-Hour Day” by Nancy L. Mace for learning to deal with my mom's Alzheimer's.

When caring for my dad before he passed from cancer in 2011, the hospice gave me a pamphlet called “Gone from my Sight” by Barbara Karnes. It tells you how things progress with a cancer patient.


Not only for yourself but for the person you’re taking care of. 

If you can find a mutual friend, it’s much better for both of you. On Fridays, a former school teacher of mine usually comes over. I say to mom, "You might want to put makeup on, Donna's coming over." Even though it's every week, she's like, "who's Donna?"

But as soon as Donna comes over, her face lights up. They sit at the kitchen table and talk about fashion and laugh and giggle. When Donna leaves, the look on Mom's face is just brighter.

25 tips for visiting a person with Alzheimer's


It’s not only about reinforcing who you’re caring for, but also giving yourself positive feedback. Even if it’s just one small thing: "Today I got her out of the house." When you feel yourself positively charged, the person you’re caring for can feel it, too.


Even if what the doctor tells you seems logical or not, talking to other doctors doesn’t hurt.


I was holding my father’s hand when he passed.

The day he died, I was supposed to go up to the Stanley Hotel, the haunted hotel from "The Shining" and hang out with the team from The Atlantic Paranormal Society, stars of “Ghost Hunters.” It's my dream to join a team like that. 

Dixie, one of the members of my investigation team who went instead, called me 2:30 a.m. the next morning after my father had died and said: "I just talked with your dad. His voice came over the Frank's Box. The voice said, 'Les, are you here?'"

Dixie raised her hand and said, "No I'm here for him, he couldn't make it." 

Then the voice said "You have three of his things." 

She had my K2 EMF reader, voice recorder and camcorder. For the rest of the 40-minute session the device was completely silent. 

I believe he was trying to say “goodbye” from the other side.

Another time a friend purchased a psychic reading for me. The psychic said to me, “your father's here in spirit.” 

I was skeptical — maybe she sees a guy in his 30s, figures his father has passed. 

Then she started touching her throat coughing. "Your Dad told me to tell you he doesn't have this anymore, does this make sense?" 

It did, because Dad had a tracheotomy. 

"Your Dad told me to tell you he didn't suffer. He coughed a few times and was gone. Now he's with his Dad who he hadn't seen since he was a little boy," the psychic said.

I broke down crying in a room full of people.

Finally, my paranormal work has made it easier to accept my feelings about my father's death. I was brought up religious so you kind of know there's a heaven. But now I really know that when you do pass it's not the end of your existence. 

'As simple as holding hands': Creating bonds when memory fades

Contact Leslie Self at Email reporter or tweet @bpopken.