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6 Loving Tips on Family Caregiving from Actress Yvette Nicole Brown

The ‘Community’ and ‘Mayor’ star is advocating for paid time off and a more accurate depiction of caregivers in TV and film

spinner image Yvette Nicole Brown attends the 'Ted Lasso' season three premiere.
Emma McIntyre/WireImage/Getty Images

To be a professional actress is one thing. To be a full-time caregiver is another.

But to be a busy working actress and step away from a prime-time acting gig to be a full-time caregiver?

Well, that’s been the loving — if not challenging — life of Yvette Nicole Brown, whose 81-year-old father, Omar Qaiyim, has wrestled with Alzheimer’s disease for the past decade.  

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The actress, best known for roles as Shirley Bennett on the NBC sitcom Community and Dina Rose on the ABC sitcom The Mayor, made the difficult decision in 2014 to step away from Community after five seasons to take care of her dad full time. The show’s producers were kind enough to release her from her contract. Within three days, Brown began the process of moving her father to the West Coast to live with her. (She has an older brother but is the sole family caregiver.)

Her dad — whose Alzheimer’s condition continues to worsen — only sometimes recognizes the actress as his loving daughter. Other times he sees her simply as that friendly lady who always smiles when she brings that yummy yogurt into his room every morning for breakfast. 

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Yvette Nicole Brown and her father, Omar Qaiyim.
Courtesy Yvette Nicole Brown

Now, during the holidays — when caregiving often gets most challenging for the nation’s 48 million unpaid family caregivers — Brown, 52, offers timely advice even as she explains why she remains a full-time caregiver. She also shares how she has teamed up with AARP and the Entertainment Industry Commission on Caregiving to highlight the underrepresented stories of those who shoulder caregiving duties for family members.

Here are her six tips for family caregivers:

Don’t do it alone. Brown says her most critical advice to other caregivers is to be transparent with friends and family about the challenges they face and the assistance they might need: “Your family and friends can’t possibly help you if you aren’t honest about your needs.”

Sometimes those needs are very specific — such as watching your loved one while you practice some self-care by taking yourself to a movie. But other times, those needs might be far less specific, she says. “Sometimes it might just be listening on the phone while you cry.”

For that, Brown relies upon her best friend, who has evolved from being Brown’s virtual personal assistant to a live-in caretaker who regularly helps with her father.

The newly engaged actress also adds: “Choose someone with a loving, giving heart, [since caregiving] will affect them and fall on their plate to handle.”

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Make self-care a priority. This, Brown concedes, is where she struggles most. “I don’t have the gene that allows me to put myself first,” she says. “I never ask myself if I’m OK.”

If it’s about any sort of medical issues involving her dad, she says, she’ll immediately leap into action and find a solution. But when it’s something that she personally needs, she tends to put that to the side. “I want to implore every caregiver to work to figure out how to do this for themselves. If you are depleted, you are no good.”

Do things that make your loved one happy. There is no “typical” day at home because her father has no set bedtime and generally gets up whenever he feels like it. But once he is up, Brown makes sure that the day is built around him. If he wants to stay in his PJs, that’s fine, or sometimes he prefers to put on an outfit as if he’s going to work. “I let him decide day by day,” she says. While her dad eats his yogurt for breakfast, Brown often puts on his favorite TV show, Sanford and Son. During lunch, they’ll often engage in conversations about his former life as a middle school head custodian. In the evening, with dinner, they typically watch the evening news together.  

Fight for what’s right. Most family caregivers provide about 20 hours of unpaid labor per week. That’s not right, she says. So she’s lobbying for federal laws and government programs that allow for paid time off for family caregivers — maybe even on a moment’s notice. “We need something specifically for the caregivers,” Brown says. “At one time or another in our lives, all of us will either need caregivers or be caregivers.”

Help demystify caregiving. Brown believes that Hollywood, for years, has wrongly portrayed caregiving. Caregivers are not superheroes, she says, but they are mostly good people who need and deserve the help of others.

Since leaving Community, Brown has been able to find other part-time acting opportunities that allow her to continue as a caretaker and still hold on to her career. (Her role as Dani on the 2015 version of The Odd Couple on CBS was 25 hours a week vs. the 80 she spent on Community.) New parts include regular cohosting gigs on the talk show The View and voice-over roles for animated kids series including Pupstruction and My Dad the Bounty Hunter.

Through her alignment with the Entertainment Industry Commission on Caregiving, she says, she works to nudge Hollywood to project a more accurate view of caregiving in movies and TV shows. “I want to encourage the entertainment industry to spark conversation to effect change,” she says.

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Talking to others about caregiving helps to demystify the fear of doing it, she says.

At the time she decided to be a full-time caregiver, she says, she had never been responsible for taking care of anyone or anything besides her dog. “Choosing to do caregiving is not hard. Choosing to love doing it is.”

Find joy in caregiving. Perhaps the biggest surprise that she’s experienced in her many years of caregiving for her dad, she says, is the genuine joy she gets from it. When you are caretaking for someone with Alzheimer’s, she says, “you are reminding a human being how to be a human being. I can put on a Miles Davis song and his face is like he is hearing it for the first time. That’s a world of wonder. That’s joyous.”

Her father was a custodian for years in Maple Heights, Ohio, where he not only kept the school warm but also kept many of the students smiling. He was beloved at the school — and still carries many of those memories with him. He loves to discuss them, and Brown loves to hear them, as well.

“We spend our lives chasing things, but at the end of your life, you want your people,” Brown says. “We should prioritize our people while we still have them.”

The father and daughter take enormous joy in just being together. “As his condition worsens, my goal is to always keep him with me,” Brown says. And, yes, while his room might ultimately become something that looks more like a hospital room, she says, “I don’t ever want him to be somewhere I am not.”

In the end, Brown says, she feels blessed to be her father’s caretaker.

“There is nothing more humbling,” she says, “than being the caretaker of my father’s memories.”

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