Peggy Sweeney-McDonald is an actress, author, podcast host, producer, writer and former caregiver. We had the opportunity to talk with Peggy about her caregiving journey and how she was able to get through the tough times. When we asked her to briefly share her story, this is what she had to say.
“I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I’m the oldest of four daughters with parents who were both outgoing, fabulous storytellers and loved life and family. My parents were my greatest fans and supported me at an early age when I wanted to be an actress. They encouraged me to follow my dreams and were my biggest cheerleaders. From acting, writing, producing, event planning, they were always there. I left Baton Rouge after graduating from Louisiana State University and lived in Houston, New York City, New Orleans before settling in Los Angeles. I moved back to Baton Rouge in August of 2016 when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Reconnecting with my family and being here during the three tough years before we lost our mother was the greatest gift of my life. It has been a challenging journey, but I have grown as a person and look at life in a whole new way. Sharing my story has been a beautiful gift.”
What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
I wish I had been more present and patient with my mother. I realize now I didn’t appreciate the good days and moments until they were gone. I would even take a bad day now just to hold her hand, hug, kiss her and tell her how much I loved her. However, I know I did the best I could, and I am grateful I was here for my mom’s final years. I am stronger because of the caregiving experience, and my heart has expanded with love for my mother, my father, sisters, and the rest of our extended family.
How different are you now from when you first found out your mother was diagnosed?
For years I heard stories from my sisters about my mother’s dwindling memory. I noticed a few things, but I was in denial. My husband lost his father to Alzheimer’s a few years before and had regrets he wasn’t closer to his family in New York. I couldn’t imagine that my mother would have Alzheimer’s too. The day she was diagnosed, we were finally able to acknowledge the elephant in the room. My husband was laid off from his job as a stockbroker on the same day. It was a huge wake-up call. We felt the universe nudging us to move home and be of service to my family. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I was scared to death. We didn’t have children, and I was totally unprepared to be there unconditionally for someone else. I wish I could say, I took on the task gracefully, but I stumbled and fell many times. There were days where I didn’t think I could do it, but I remembered all the times my mother was there for me, and it gave me the strength to get up and keep moving forward. I could hear her saying, “Put your big girl panties on, Peggy!” Alzheimer’s is brutal for the person diagnosed and the family members. You can read all the “how-to” books and pamphlets for great advice, but then you just have to remember the love and to pray in the toughest moments. There isn’t a perfect way to be a caregiver. It’s a learning experience every day.
I now look at life in a new way. It is so fragile and can change in an instant. I make an effort to live in the moment and find the gifts of each day. My father is 85-years old, and I spend quality time with him. We walk to the lake in our neighborhood, sit on a bench, and watch the Canadian geese, herons, and turtles. I love watching the sun glistening on the lake, and taking time to pause and breathe. I still miss our life in Los Angeles, but home is where your heart is!
What resources would you have liked to have available when you were a caregiver?
I think there should be a 12th Step program for caregivers. Applying the 12 Steps to Alzheimer’s or any other debilitating disease would be a valuable tool, plus having the support of others sharing their experience, strength, and hope.
What did you do for self-care?
I neglected my self-care for three years while caregiving my mother, and it was a big mistake. I gained weight, suffered from depression, and had insomnia. I finally had to reach out for professional help. After my mother passed, I made self-care a priority. I now exercise daily with walking, yoga, Zumba, and other YouTube exercise videos. I begin each morning by reading my prayer and meditation books. I write in a gratitude journal listing five things I’m grateful for. It sets the tone of my day. I have a wonderful group of supportive women friends around the country, and we Zoom every Sunday. My husband, Jimmy, is my rock. He keeps me grounded and laughing.
Would you tell us about your podcast – what is it about and why you started it?
Through my vulnerable stories and true-to-life candor, I shine a light on the entire “family journey” through the dis-ease of Alzheimer’s. Life In The A-Zone podcast honors the truth while creating space for the kindred community of so many souls who have trudged and are trudging Alzheimer’s. Narrated with heart and soul, I take the listeners on a path of reaffirmation of a dynamic love between a mother and daughter.
After my mother passed away in July 2019, I began writing a memoir of my journey as her caregiver. Searching for podcasts on Alzheimer’s, I recognized a void in addressing the honest and heartbreaking struggle of the caregiver. With the lingering pandemic as a motivator, I decided to podcast my stories and launched the first episode at the end of July 2020 on the anniversary of my mother’s death.
My podcast is devoted to helping caregivers, friends, and family heal and recuperate from the Alzheimer’s experience or the “A-Zone” as I named it. Using my own life experiences as anecdotes, I hope listeners will consider my podcast as a source of strength and hope. These stories are not only applicable to Alzheimer’s but to anyone who has watched their loved ones slip away slowly from a life-threatening disease.
From the first episode, The Decision, the podcast pulls the listener into the Sweeney family’s world where at the doctor’s office we hear the dreaded news, “Your mother has Alzheimer’s.” In Episode 5, Lessons of the Lake, I learn spiritual life lessons while encountering wildlife on my neighborhood lake walks. I give my listeners a front-row seat to the caregiving journey, and they will feel like they are right there experiencing my every thought, emotion, smell, and taste. Like most southern stories, the podcast has tasty, mouth-watering food descriptions that will make you come back for more.
In Episode 2, Meatball Madness, there is comic relief from my New Yorker husband, and the listener will want to cook a spaghetti and meatball dinner without the family drama. The last Easter and Christmas with my mother are episodes filled with memories of better times. The final episodes include the decision to move her into a memory care facility and then her death surrounded by our family. Although the stories are emotionally raw and heartbreaking, they are also filled with love and compassion.
Life In The A-Zone now has over 10,000 downloads worldwide and is available on Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Amazon, Pandora, iHeart Radio, Spotify, YouTube, Stitcher, and Podbean. I’ve received comments from listeners who have shared they laughed and cried relating to my stories.
What else would you like to share with fellow caregivers?
Find your angels – friends and family who you can turn to when you need to express your sorrow and anger. Do not lose hope or faith. Ask for help. You can’t do this alone. Know your limits. The most challenging day was when we realized we could no longer give Mom the help she needed. The memory care facility was a Godsend. She was only there for five months, but she received the best care. The staff loved her, and she grew to love them.
We loved hearing Peggy’s story! You can follow her and listen to her podcast through the various links below.
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