Barbara Smith, known to the world as B. Smith, and her husband, Dan Gasby, have shared 23 years of marriage replete with professional, financial and personal achievements that have helped make them household names in the food and TV industries. Among the couple’s successes as business partners are a SiriusXM radio show about entertaining, business and their secrets for a happy marriage; the opening of three restaurants in the United States; and an expansive line of cookware and olive oil.
Now, Smith and Gasby are facing another challenge— one less unique than their previous hurdles yet one that has brought them as, if not more, close together: Alzheimer’s disease.
“It’s sort of like flying through turbulence,” Gasby, 62, told FoxNews.com of Alzheimer’s, which Smith, 66, was diagnosed with in 2014. “You know you’re in a plane. You know it’s gonna have some bumps, but you know the plane is relatively stable and we’re going to find some smooth air. It takes awhile, but we’re going to land.”
An estimated 5.1 million Americans ages 65 and older suffer from Alzheimer’s disease— a condition as devastating as it is mysterious, as scientists know neither precisely what causes the most common type of dementia nor how to cure it. Alzheimer’s leads to a gradual decline in cognitive faculties, rendering those who have it progressively dependent on family members to help them complete everyday tasks. An estimated three or more Americans provide free and regular care for each diagnosed Alzheimer’s patient nationwide, amounting in 2014 to an estimated value of $217.7 billion— a number that is expected to nearly triple by 2050.
Gasby is one of the more than 15 million Alzheimer’s caregivers in the United States who is providing that free care. With Smith by his side, Gasby is helping spearhead a national campaign with the nonprofit Caregiver Action Network (CAN) and Actavis, an Allergan affiliate, to raise awareness of caregivers like himself, whose lives are rattled as profoundly as Alzheimer’s patients themselves when the disease strikes.
During the organization’s Take 1 Moment campaign, which began Monday, Sept. 21, on World Alzheimer’s Day, the couple is calling on people to post a photo of a caregiver they know and use the hashtag #Take1Moment on social media to recognize them.
“When you talk to someone and say you have someone in your family who’s a caregiver, and you look each other in the eye, you know exactly what the other person is experiencing,” Gasby said. “When someone says, ‘I can’t imagine,’ the caregiver doesn’t have to imagine— they know.”
Although African-Americans are twice as likely as Caucasians to develop late-onset Alzheimer’s, the demographic has been notably underrepresented in the conversation of Alzheimer’s awareness.
“Historically African-Americans have not been wanting to expose things that have to do with mental health or things that may not seem appropriate to talk about,” Gasby said. “We want to hide it; we don’t want to look weak. We always want to be strong … we wanted to let people know it’s OK to talk about it.”
‘You gotta like who you love’
Gasby began a successful career in the TV industry in the late 1970s, and later created and produced "Big Break," a musical variety show hosted by Natalie Cole, which is considered the predecessor to "American Idol." Smith earned international fame in 1976 after becoming the first African-American woman to appear on the cover of “Mademoiselle” magazine, and later hosted NBC’s TV show “B. Smith with Style,” which had aired on more than 90 percent of U.S. households and in more than 40 countries. Her presence in the cooking world, plus her on-air charm, earned her the nickname "the black Martha Stewart" among many fans.
Smith and Gasby’s current effort is raising national attention not only because of the couple’s celebrity, but also due to their fierce devotion to each other as Alzheimer’s continues to take its toll on Smith’s body and mind.
“You gotta like who you love,” Gasby said. “Most people love who they like, and through tough times that can melt away or disintegrate. I’ve always liked her.”
Those who have followed Smith’s story will likely remember when Gasby reported her missing in fall 2014 after Smith traveled by a bus destined for Sag Harbor, New York, where the couple has a home, but did not get off. Instead, she missed her stop and traveled to New York City, where her daughter reportedly found her in a restaurant not far from the couple’s previous Manhattan residence.
At the time, Gasby described the event to media as worrying, but the couple can laugh about it today.
“I had a long walk,” Smith told FoxNews.com.
“I tell you, she did a marathon and a half— in high heels,” Gasby echoed her.
The hardest part of Smith’s Alzheimer’s journey so far, Gasby pointed out, is when they hadn’t yet received a diagnosis.
“That’s something you have to work through, and the sooner you find out, the sooner you have access to doctors to use medical research,” Gasby said, “and once you know it is Alzheimer’s, exercise is important, mediation is important, reading is important.”
‘We won’t give up on each other’
Smith remains active and engaged, but adapting to the disease has required checklists and proactive, internal self-motivation.
“Having Alzheimer’s affects a whole family,” Smith said. “In the beginning, I was a little weepy, but then I like to talk to myself, ‘Get it together, Barbara.’”
Smith still gets weepy, but focusing on self-growth has helped her stay strong, as has maintaining a sense of humor.
“He’s (Gasby) my best friend,” Smith said. “I continue to want things to be at the best they can be— through all the things that we’ve gone through, and in doing that, it [brings] us even more together. And if I can’t get something done, sometimes I just start crying.”
Gasby said daily life has become more challenging, as Smith has gone from being a woman who could do “everything” to being someone who has to put in extra effort to do things like cook, which she still does but “not as ferociously as before,” she said.
“I watch her go through a checklist, understanding these are things she can’t do, and I can’t do them for her,” Gasby said. “We just have to do something else, or we have to move on.”
Gasby said Smith’s diagnosis has changed his perspective on what matters most in life.
“I appreciate the little things so much more,” he said. “You don’t need as much when you really understand you have so many things you take for granted— like appreciating a sunset, taking a moment out of your day to say, ‘What we have is OK.’ You don’t always need to want more, or feel like you’re missing something. To see [Smith] laugh or smile more— those are the things you appreciate so much more.”
Gasby said he wants other Alzheimer’s caregivers to know “it’s OK to be impatient but to work through it and that it’s OK if things aren’t perfect.”
Smith and Gasby are working on a book titled "Before I Forget," which details their plight with Alzheimer’s disease. In writing that book and participating in the Take 1 Moment campaign with CAN, they hope to be a voice for other couples like themselves and help prompt action, awareness, and fundraising for research.
“Being in a high-profile situation, we were told by many people, ‘Don’t expose this. Don’t talk about this. Hide this,’” Gasby said. “But that’s not us.”
“That’s not us at all,” Smith said.
For Smith’s battle with Alzheimer’s and Gasby’s role as a caregiver, it’s about standing by their best friends, each other, and remembering why they’ve liked and loved each other all along, they said.
“That’s why we’re out here,” Gasby said. “She’ll get a little weepy, but she won’t stop. We’ll get a little frustrated with each other, but we won’t give up on each other.”
“Never,” Smith said.