Barbara “B.” Smith has always sought the limelight — leveraging her fame as one of the country’s first high-profile black models to become a cookbook author, restaurateur and lifestyle maven.
Her diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease in 2013 has not driven her into the shadows.
While her syndicated TV show and her three restaurants are gone, you can still find B. Smith linens and dishes at Bed, Bath & Beyond, and B. Smith olive oil at Walmart. And while Smith’s daily life has grown much more private — she walks on the beach with her dogs, cooks simple meals with her husband and watches old sitcoms at her home in Sag Harbor, N.Y. — she still is sharing her life story.
“I’m still myself. I just can’t remember things as well as I once did,” she writes in a new book called Before I Forget: Love, Hope, Help, And Acceptance in Our Fight Against Alzheimer’s, written with husband Dan Gasby and with Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Shnayerson.
While the book is largely a memoir — with Smith and Gasby (mostly Gasby) telling the story of Smith’s diagnosis and gradual decline (she has gone from the mild to the moderate stage since they first went public in mid-2014) — it’s also a call to action, particularly for African Americans.
“The reason we are launching this during Martin Luther King weekend is that Alzheimer’s is a 21st-century civil rights issue,” Gasby says in a video Skype interview with Smith, 66, at his side. “Two out of three people with Alzheimer’s disease are women. Blacks are two to three times more likely to have Alzheimer’s. … And it drives people into poverty, in many cases taking away the gains that a sizable and growing portion of people in the African-American community have made.”
Stephanie Monroe, director of the African Americans Against Alzheimer’s Network, says that’s a vital concern. According to the advocacy group, African Americans who leave the workforce to care for a family member with Alzheimer’s lose, on average, more than $300,000 in earnings and benefits and are much more likely to live in poverty than whites in the same situation.
“We are only 13% of the population, but blacks are bearing 30% of the cost of Alzheimer’s,” Monroe says. “It can just have an incredibly devastating effect.”
The reasons that more blacks — and more Hispanics — develop Alzheimer’s disease are not clear, says Goldie Byrd, a professor of biology and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at North Carolina A&T State University. Some genetic differences that might contribute have been found among blacks, she says. Higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular conditions probably contribute, too, she says. Byrd has been among researchers urging more African Americans to join studies so that clearer answers can be found.
“When we have role models like B. Smith who are willing to share their stories, it helps families all over the place,” Byrd says.
Monroe agrees: “She is a household name in the black community. She is a Martha Stewart for us.”
Smith and Gasby have urged more African Americans to get involved in research. And, Gasby says, they want to help more families recognize the early signs of Alzheimer’s and seek care, with less fear of stigma.
Smith, who was diagnosed at age 64, probably was showing signs for years before that, Gasby says in the book. Once punctual and unflappable, she started missing appointments and flubbing TV tapings. She would ask the same questions over and over. During a Today show cooking segment, she simply froze, unable to think of a thing to say.
Source: USA Today | Kim Painter