(Video) Queen Latifah Gets Real About Caregiving For Mom — Check out our video for more about Queen Latifah's special relationship with her mom, as well as more of her tips for caregivers.
Queen Latifah is an award-winning actress (currently appearing in the movie Miracles From Heaven), rapper, singer, songwriter and television producer — as well as a family caregiver. I met with her recently to talk about caregiving and her work with the American Heart Association's new Red Steps Challenge to "rise above" heart failure, which afflicts some 6 million Americans.
It didn't feel like a typical celebrity interview because we discussed something important we have in common: We are both caregiving daughters. Our mothers live or have lived with heart failure — mine for 24 years until she passed away from other causes, and Latifah's mom, Rita Owens, having the chronic condition for many years.
The star's caregiving role came on suddenly about 12 years ago, after her mother, then working as a high school teacher in New Jersey, passed out at school one day and was rushed to the hospital. After many tests, Owens was diagnosed with heart failure — shocking to hear, but her heart improved as she got the care and support she needed.
She now manages the condition with medication and a defibrillator implanted in her chest, while maintaining a healthy, veggie-heavy diet. (Owens also battles scleroderma, an autoimmune disease that affects her breathing.)
Like many caregivers, Latifah is a busy working woman who travels a lot. She insisted that Owens move to Los Angeles with her so she could better manage her mom's care when she was doing a television show there. Now her mom is feeling better and has moved back to her home in New Jersey.
Latifah visits her frequently and remains very involved in her care, even from a distance. As she puts it, "I just start the day with mom and how's she doing: 'Do you need anything? What's going on?' "
She also leads a team of family members, close friends and health care providers who support her mom — a role that's earned her the title "the general."
She finds the label amusing, she says, because she's not usually the commanding type: "I'm not tough in that sense, but you do have to become stronger."
American Heart Association
Latifah's eyes sparkle, and she gets emotional when she talks about her mom. They are best friends, she says, and Owens inspires her because she is "so positive and strong, and I've seen her come through some really, really challenging moments. She never ceases to amaze me."
For Mother's Day this year, Latifah is planning a surprise for Owens "with my big celebrity friends who want to honor their mothers, as well."
What has Latifah learned from caring for her mom? She says it has made her much more conscientious about her own health. She and Owens are working to raise awareness about the signs and symptoms of heart failure and to encourage others to take heart-healthy steps through the Red Steps Challenge — symbolized by red socks. (Go to RiseAboveHF.org for more information.)
At the end of our conversation, when I thank Latifah for sharing her journey, her warm response touches my heart: "Thank you for everything you've done for your family and continue to be blessed, and keep blessing other people," she tells me. If you're a caregiver, you know how much her words mean.
She may have said it to me, but it's her message to all of us — her fellow caregivers. Thanks for all you do.
Update: Rita Owens passed away on March 21, 2018.
Amy Goyer is AARP's family, caregiving and multigenerational issues expert; she spends most of her time in Phoenix, where she is caring for her 92-year-old dad, Robert, who lives with her and has Alzheimer's disease. She is the author of AARP's Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving. Follow Amy on Twitter @amygoyer, connect on Facebook and LinkedIn, and for ongoing caregiving support from Amy and AARP, text AMY to 97779.