More to Morales
Natalie Morales is loving her new West Coast role and life, but the Access co-host reveals how a family battle with Alzheimer’s got her to rethink the future. Here’s what she wants more women to know about the realities of caregiving.
TV host Natalie Morales gets candid on caregiving and her own work-life balance.
As the world has seemed to tilt at warp speed for the past two years, Natalie Morales has been embracing a more laid-back approach from her newly built home in Brentwood, CA. And the move to the West Coast to co-host Access, its morning show, Access Live, and report in to Today as West Coast anchor seems to be suiting the journalist just fine.
For years, the Rutgers alumna balanced 4 a.m. call times and reporting on breaking-news headlines with juggling life as a mom to two boys, Josh, now 14, and Luke, now 9, in Hoboken, NJ. Behind the scenes, Natalie and her family had been braving another struggle for years.
At just 55, her mother-in-law, Kay Rhodes, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. For 15 years, her father-in-law, along with her husband, Jay, and Jay’s sister’s family, helped manage his mother’s care, first at their home in Colorado and then in an assisted-living facility. She passed away at age 70, but seeing Kay live with the disease at such a young age had a tremendous impact on the whole family. “So many of us moms are used to the caregiving part, but now we’re finding ourselves having to take care of our own parents. It’s something that a lot of people don’t prepare for, and you certainly don’t expect that in your 50s. [I kept thinking that] this could be me 10 years from now,” Natalie shares.
Now, Natalie admits, “we are much more mindful about taking healthier approaches in life.” And she’s sought to make spreading awareness of the challenges of caregiving one of her primary advocacy missions. Here, Natalie shares what she’s learned, and why she’s prioritizing two things—healthy living and enjoying time with her family.
Natalie, along with her husband and father-in-law, received the caregiver award at the annual Rita Hayworth Gala in May for her work with the Alzheimer’s Association. “It was an incredible honor,” Natalie says. “It was nice to also recognize all those in the caregiving role—which unfortunately is becoming more common.” The gala was started to bring awareness to the 5 million people battling Alzheimer’s and the 16 million family members caring for them.
Q How did you learn that your mother-in-law was dealing with Alzheimer’s at such a young age?
In planning for our wedding ( back in 1998), her disease really became apparent. We had sent our wedding bands to Jay’s parents in Colorado. She had hid the bands because she was nervous that they would be stolen, and she couldn’t remember where she hid them. She was having some mood and personality changes, which we were not at that point aware of because we were living in the New York area. But my husband would go visit and say, “Something is wrong.” Then, finally she was diagnosed. Now I’m using my voice because I have a platform to share a story, which I think is becoming more common.
Q How did you work together as a family to figure it all out?
I think that’s the key: pulling together as a family. Even though we were all in different locations, my husband and his sister would always make an effort to go out there every few months or so to check on their dad. Kay was still in the prime of her life [when she was diagnosed], so it took 15 years for the disease [to progress]. She was experiencing symptoms, of course, but we saw toward the end she couldn’t talk, she couldn’t walk, she could barely lift her head up.
The financial aspect of it is crushing, which a lot of people don’t realize until it’s too late. On average, 70 percent of lifetime costs of caring for someone with dementia is borne by families. It’s like a mortgage, and in Colorado, it isn’t as expensive as it is in some areas, but I think Jay’s father was paying around $6,000 a month to have her in a full-care Alzheimer’s facility. It’s outrageous, and a lot of people say,
“Well, there is insurance, and Medicare and Medicaid to take care of them.” But that runs out very quickly, and then it’s all on you. Whether it’s taking care of your aging parent with dementia or Alzheimer’s, or even a sick child, we have all had that point in our lives. You never know when it’s going to be longer than five years. In the case of Alzheimer’s, and especially early-onset Alzheimer’s, it can last more than 10 years. For a family, that can be debilitating.
Q What was the toughest part of the experience?
It was hard bringing my son, Josh, and our baby, Luke, to visit her. Josh would always ask, “What’s wrong with Grandma?” They were even a little bit afraid of going there because they saw somebody who didn’t look like my mom, who is perfectly healthy. Seeing this other grandmother who didn’t know who they were, who didn’t have that grandmotherly reaction to them, couldn’t really hold them or talk to them, and didn’t have a connection, as a mom, was heartbreaking.
Q What is your number-one piece of advice for working mothers who might not be in this position yet but could be in the future?
I would say try to plan for what’s ahead.
You have to be five steps ahead of this disease. Also, share the burden. Don’t take it all on yourself because it’s too hard. As working moms, we are already pulled in so many directions and it’s normal to want to be there for our parents, but you are, in the end, going to suffer all of the consequences if you do that by yourself. I would also say reach out to organizations that are there to help. The Alzheimer’s Association has been so wonderful with my father-in-law, and he is still there and active in his local Denver chapter of the Alzheimer’s facility. They are nationwide and have so many resources available. One time my father-inlaw just needed a break—an hour or two a day—and they had volunteers come to his house. He didn’t want to pay for care yet at that point, and this lovely volunteer named Teri Surnan would come to the house and do art projects with my mother-inlaw for an hour or two every other day. She did it out of the kindness of her heart because she had a parent who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Q How did you work out the caregiving duties with your husband?
For him, it was more about working it out with his sister. And for me it was about working it out with the kids and having a full career. It was a lot, but they worked it out so well, and again, all the credit goes to my father-in-law, who was so wonderful and loving. He felt like he needed to be the one who did a majority of the work, but he knew that he
could call on us and we would be there for whatever he needed. My father-in-law also has a wonderful community of friends around him who are practically family.
Q How do you and your husband divvy up childcare and other home duties?
There are things that Jay is great at doing, and I have my strengths. My husband is much more the calm, non-emotional type, whereas I’m highly stressed and overly emotional, so we balance each other really well. I think I’m really good at communicating with people about what we need and getting answers quickly, whereas he calms me down when I might be getting a little too crazy. He’s also the one to remind me, “Don’t press send on that email just yet!” I think it’s important to have that balance and communication with each other. I know that I can rely on him when I’m feeling overwhelmed. He’s the one who says: “OK, take a step back. We can do this. We’re a team.”
Q What advice do you have for working moms who are providing care for their parents too?
Take care of yourself! I think that you need to give that to yourself, whether it’s exercise or taking the time to meditate. Studies show that meditation works so well for the brain, especially when we’re talking about Alzheimer’s and how your brain needs time to recover and unwind after a hard day of stress over work. For me, working out is my meditation. I would like to say that I meditate as well, but my mind does not shut down! Find that time for yourself, and make sure your finances are in order and that you have a long-term plan as well as a short-term plan.
Q Was your family’s experience part of the reason you made the decision to move from New York City to California?
It was more of a bucket list thing for my husband and me. My kids were going into seventh and second grade. It seemed like it was time for a change. I grew up an Air Force brat. I moved every three years on average. So after living in a small town for 15 years—I loved Hoboken, NJ—I thought my kids needed to get out of their comfort zone. [I went to my bosses, and] I was like, “Listen, things are changing, my role is changing; what do you think about this? We have always talked about needing more of a West Coast presence.” I presented them with this opportunity and this role, and they went for it.
Q That’s a great example of speaking up for yourself. A lot of us only see roles that already exist and feel like we have to cram ourselves into them.
I’m not going to lie. It’s hard for a lot of people to see when their role is changing or if things are changing around you, and figure out, “How do I fit in?” I think the key is, “How do you find something for yourself?” Again, I think [ being open to change and trying new things] all goes back to this being good for your body and your brain.
Q What do you say to people who may have perceived the role change as a downshift?
I don’t want to have regrets from not experiencing other things and having other opportunities. So, for me, the change of living a life that was perhaps a little more fulfilling and fun, and being home more often with the kids, rather than being on the road covering tragic breaking news stories all the time [was a no-brainer]. I get to cook dinner for them more often. I am home to help with their homework more often. So I am much more of a mom now. I was always trying to figure out, how do I have a great career and find that balance? Which we all know doesn’t exist, but [it was really] how do I find a way to make this job work for me and my family? I think I have found that solution.