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An Alzheimer’s love story: How a celebrity couple deals with the disease

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By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.

Special to The Times

 

Elegance is evident in B. Smith.

 

Whether she’s sporting a black baseball cap or a little black dress, Smith displays the casual, classy style that made her the multi-tiered success and brand that she is. Her years on the runway and in front of the camera are obvious as she flashes that perfect smile when the lens catches her eye.

 

Born Barbara Elaine Smith, the 67-year-old has gracefully performed under several banners: supermodel, restaurateur, magazine publisher, celebrity chef, and nationally known lifestyle maven. Now there is another—Alzheimer’s Disease patient.

 

But rather than fade away, Smith and her husband, Dan Gasby, have set out to put a face to an illness that has robbed so many of their memories and lives, an illness that has raided families of loved ones and stolen the lifestyles of those paying for patient care.

 

Smith and Gasby were moved by a 2015 visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, so they chose to launch their new book “Before I Forget” in the Magic City.

 

“Alzheimer’s is a 21st century Civil Rights issue,” Gasby said during a book signing at Barnes & Noble at The Summit on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016. “Two out of three of the 5.3 million people who have the illness today are women. Blacks are two to three times as likely to get it.”

 

Alzheimer’s Disease is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. Symptoms usually develop slowly and worsen over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks.

 

A Love Story

 

Gasby calls “Before I Forget” a love story, one that chronicles the steps and missteps taken by the couple as they dealt with the disease. He calls his wife the nicest person he’s ever met, a person with whom anyone would want to share a cup of coffee after a chance encounter. Like others afflicted with Alzheimer’s, however, there are times when “you’re dealing with a person who becomes demon-like,” he said.

 

Those shifts in demeanor often yield caregivers tired and angry with both God and the people in their care. They also can yield guilt.

 

“But you can’t beat yourself up,” Gasby told the audience. “You have to go on and understand how to forgive yourself.”

 

Many at Barnes & Noble and earlier gathering at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute could relate because they were in the same club. Like Gasby, they either are or have been caregivers for loved ones with Alzheimer’s Disease.

 

Sara Hamlin, vice president of tourism with the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, was initiated into that club when her mother Marie Banks was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Hamlin was a caregiver for seven years before her mother passed away in her arms in 1997. While she considered it an honor to be her mother’s caregiver, she said it was difficult. As her mother’s memory faded, so did the person Hamlin had known.

 

“I started to grieve the loss of her before she actually passed away,” she said. “My mother had been very vibrant, very outgoing, very active, very involved. When you see someone just sitting there, still or staring, that person is void of personality. It really is devastating to watch. My faith kept me through the process of it all.”

 

Good Days

 

Smith has good days and days that are not so good. Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, was a good one, as she visited with Bobbie Knight, chair of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s board of directors, and her husband, Gary Burley. Asked about Gasby, Smith didn’t hesitate to express her feelings: “I love him.”

 

“He’s great,” she said. “He’s my best friend.  I feel that we got into something, and it’s working or it isn’t working. But right now it’s working. I’m feeling good about that.”

 

Gasby acknowledges that it hasn’t always worked. Before his wife was diagnosed, he didn’t know what to think. There was moodiness. There were arguments.

There had been memory lapses. The couple dismissed all of those signs. It wasn’t until Smith froze during a live segment of the “Today” show that the couple set out on a search for real answers.

 

A $4,500 test—not covered by insurance—confirmed that Smith had Alzheimer’s Disease and signaled a change.

 

“I don’t have a wife the way I used to,” Gasby said. “I’ve had to adjust, at times, to being a single parent. That’s a tough thing. When a woman goes from doing everything to having trouble doing anything, it’s a tremendous strain on a relationship. But you have to understand … in sickness and in health, for better or for worse.”

 

Going Forward

 

The couple’s travels now are as much a book tour as a campaign to point out the incredible cost of Alzheimer’s and to generate more money for research to fight the disease.

 

“Barbara Smith, B. Smith is 67 years old, [and] she looks like she’s 47,” Gasby said. “She’s had a remarkable life. But what she’s going to be known for more than anything—more than all the travels, more than all the success—is for making a statement that if this can happen to her, to us, it can happen to anyone.”

 

Gasby and Smith have a measure of wealth from their varied business interests, including a line of houseware items sold at Bed, Bath & Beyond, as well as her B. Smith restaurants. But are well aware that poor and middle class people may not have the resources to weather this type of storm.

 

Conversely, Gasby said, Alzheimer’s research dollars are “a pittance” compared with the funding devoted to other illnesses because it’s not a “sexy” disease and is often viewed instead as “that old person’s disease.”

“It’s not even about Sweetie,” he said, using his pet name for his wife. “I don’t want anyone else to go through this going forward.”

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