Oscar- and Tony-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden lost her mother, Beverly Bushfield, in 2019, following a 12-year battle with Alzheimer’s. Here, Harden discusses the difficult experience she chronicles in her memoir, her advice to others dealing with the disease and what families should never forget: “Your loved one is still there.”
Marcia Gay Harden is a Celebrity Champion of the Alzheimer’s Association.
I’m so sorry about what you’ve gone through. Can you talk a little about your mother’s experience with Alzheimer’s and how it began?
Alzheimer’s is a long, slow, progressive disease that affects the entire family. My mother, Beverly, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007 at age 70, and she passed away 12 years later, shortly after Thanksgiving, in 2019. Initially, the signs were subtle. People often confuse the signs of Alzheimer’s with normal aging. With my mom, we started to notice her having trouble with dates and details on her calendar and misplacing things she’d just had in her possession, like her passport. But when she started forgetting important details about one of her favorite hobbies, ikebana—Japanese flower arranging—we knew with certainty her memory was failing. … It was heartbreaking to experience my beautiful mother forgetting so much of her life—and losing touch with the people and things dearest to her.
What surprised you to learn about Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s is a stealthy thief. It was devastating to witness how much this disease was stealing from her. Her memory. Her independence. But it didn’t steal her dignity! Mom’s elegance was the core of her outlook on life, and even when confused, she remained elegant and kind, always concerned about others. This was so beautiful to discover. Her diagnosis taught me the importance of living in the moment. You must cherish every second with your loved ones! We also learned that the best thing for Mom was not to correct her when her mind was in a different place. Instead, we met her where she was in the moment.
In her 2018 memoir, Harden reflects on her mother’s beautiful spirit in the face of battling Alzheimer’s.
How did you try to support her and stay strong through this time?
My sisters, brother and I all worked together to figure out how to best care for our mom at the different stages of the disease. We went through various plans: She lived with different children; we took care of her at her home; and she was at an assisted living facility briefly; but, ultimately, we were fortunate that we were able to have around-the-clock caregivers so she could stay near the things she loved. And we tried to visit and call often! Even if they don’t remember, you do, and, actually, I believe they do remember the energy of attention and love. … Across the country, there are more than 11 million family members and friends who are Alzheimer’s caregivers. Most of them are women, caught between caring for their own children and giving up other jobs. November is National Family Caregivers Month—a month the Alzheimer’s Association uses to honor these selfless individuals.
What advice do you have for people and families who are dealing with this?
Preparation now will save a lot of confusion later. Confirm with the family who has been assigned the executor and the durable power of attorney. Familiarize yourself with these duties. You may have to get their finances in order; get the passwords for various accounts, from utilities to insurance; and to make sure they have a will. I know this is hard for a lot of people, but it’s important. You may even have to find out what they want at their funeral. You will need to manage their home, their money and their care. Clarity and communication are essential. On a heart level, the most hopeful piece of advice I can offer people going through this Alzheimer’s journey is that the essence, the soul and the beauty of your loved one is still there. Your loved one is still there. It’s just a different version of that person, a version of them you both are getting to know. Be patient Be accepting. My mother never told anyone to be anything but who they are—qualities I learned from her that I’ve done my best to instill in myself and my children.
Harden at 2022 Creative Arts Emmy Awards
How did your experience inspire you to get involved in the Alzheimer’s Association?
With Alzheimer’s, there is not much you can control. But what I could control is how I used this experience, and I decided to use it for good. I joined forces with the Alzheimer’s Association as a Celebrity Champion to use my platform to raise awareness, educate people about signs to look out for, as well as help people find support and resources. What I want people to know is that you are not alone. Help is available. The association offers free information and support through its website and 24/7 help line (800.272.3900). My hope is one day no family has to go through what mine did with my mom.
What prompted you to write your memoir, The Seasons of My Mother: A Memoir of Love, Family, and Flowers (Atria Books, 2018)?
The memoir morphed out of another project my mother and I had been creating: a television show called Beverly’s Blooms, where she visits various gardens of celebrities, then interviews them and finally creates a flower arrangement from the plantings in their garden. When her memory started to fail, this project eventually became a memoir. I really wrote it because she was starting to forget who she was, and all that she had accomplished. I wanted to remind her. I would read passages to her, and she would smile and say, ‘That’s me? I did all that?’
Alzheimer’s may steal memories, but what’s a memory of your mother you’ll always cherish?
Her flower arranging! I always have flowers in my home, on set or in my hotel room. I arrange them with the ikebana symmetry in mind; I plant my gardens with my mother’s advice ringing in my ears.
Congrats on your Emmy nod for The Morning Show. What’s next?
So Help Me Todd is a wonderful new CBS hourlong dramedy, where I play Margaret, a fancy lawyer working with her millennial ‘detective’ son. Oil meets vinegar, and love always prevails! I know my mom would have loved it… and I do believe there’s a little bit of Beverly in Margaret.
Photography by: FROM TOP: PHOTO BY LARSEN TALBERT; PHOTO BY NA KIM; AMY SUSSMAN/GETTY IMAGE