Janay Smith has had careers in law and the corporate world, but nothing prepared her to be a caregiver for her mother.
Smith, 52, lost her father, Jock M. Smith, to a heart attack in 2012. He was a law partner of Johnnie Cochran’s, a professor and judge and a noted collector of sports memorabilia.
Soon after his death, Smith, an only child, started noticing changes in her mother’s memory and behavior.
Perhaps it’s just grief, friends and family said.
Smith, though, suspected it was more.
Doctors later confirmed it was Alzheimer’s disease.
Until her diagnosis, Yvette Smiley-Smith was a certified public accountant who also owned and operated an expert witness consulting firm. Suddenly, she needed to be reminded to go to the bathroom.
“It was pure hell,” said Smith. “I never experienced anything like that. I’ve never seen a movie or TV show or podcast to this day that describes what I felt.”
She was in disbelief that her mother’s progression was so steep and fast.
“There was no gradual progression in my mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s,” said Smith, during an interview in the southwest Atlanta home she shares with her mother.
It was abrupt. She was fully functional, then 90 days after her father’s death, Smith had to take over all of her mother’s affairs.
“I didn’t lose both parents at the same time in a plane crash or car accident, but I lost my parents within 90 days of each other.”
The stress of being her mother’s main caregiver initially was affecting her own health.
One night Smith woke up in distress. She passed out. When she came to, she couldn’t move. Eventually, she was able to get up on her own.
She was later told by her doctor that she had stroke-like symptoms and her vitals were trending the wrong way.
It was time to get help.
In looking for a way to get more balance and relieve stress, Smith decided to take a comedy class and was hooked.
“Everyone always told me I was funny,” said Smith. “As a caregiver, I was falling apart and I was looking for an outlet to balance my own life and stress. I didn’t think comedy be a new career path I was just trying to find a new hobby and I fell in love with it.”
She has now transformed that hobby into a new standup comedy career in addition to her responsibility as a caregiver.
Smith, whose stage name is J Smiles, also hosts a podcast “Parenting Up!: Caregiving Adventures with Comedian J Smiles.”
“Listen my dad dropped dead — my mom’s brain broke, yawl I was drinking cognac like iced tea… ‘eh betta than cocaine — don’t judge me.”
“Y’all got a baby-mama, I got a mama baby.”
“People say becoming a caregiver is like becoming a parent, a lie. New parents get parties — I didn’t even get a pack of pampers.”
“I’m bothered – stressed – when I’m not engaged in solutions,” she said. “Standup lets me vent, dream and educate all under the umbrella of entertainment. The stage is my protest podium, plus therapy couch.”
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are more than 150,000 Georgians 65 and older living with the disease, and 6.7 million nationally. Alzheimer’s is the most common of the dementias, diseases that affect memory, thinking and behavior.
The stress on caregivers, usually family members, is enormous.
For many, the role of caregiver can be all consuming, especially as the disease progresses, said Glenna Brewster, an assistant professor at Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing .
Alzheimer’s sufferers face cognitive decline. They may have behavioral issues and need help bathing, managing medication or swallowing.
“If you’re doing all of that then you don’t have time for yourself,” Brewster said. For caregivers there’s a risk of ailments such as high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease as well as depression and feelings of anger or guilt.
Her comedy, says Smith, provides respite for those caring for others.
“It’s important to find that ‘me time’ to be able to laugh at the things that might have happened in your caregiving experiences,” said Brewster. “And there’s that connection when the comedian is going through the same experience and who can say, ‘I know what you are going through.’ "
She did virtual comedy performances during the pandemic and launched the podcast, which is heard in roughly 100 nations and is available on sites such Apple, Spotify, Google and Amazon.
Smith has performed at comedy clubs in the U.S. and abroad, during corporate team building meetings and at events for caregivers .
“Knowing I’m helping others makes my journey less difficult,” she said.
Alexandra Villano is senior director of program development and strategy for Hilarity for Charity, a nonprofit formed by actors Seth Rogen and Lauren Miller Rogen.
The nonprofit, which focuses on supporting Alzheimer’s family caregivers, has worked with Smith on some of its free virtual programs.
Her podcast and standup routine “lightens the mood a little bit,” Villano said.
Smith covers the gamut “because caregiving can be very brutal and very hard and difficult and sometimes it can be funny,” Villano said. “Through laughter she makes a point. She’s speaking truth to them and people can recognize their own experiences and their own stories.”
Where to learn more about Azheimer’s disease and caregiver support and resources:
Georgia Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association
Hilarity for Charity (HFC)
Nonprofit formed by actors Seth Rogen and Lauren Miller Rogen to support people who are caring for people with Alzheimer’s disease. wearehlc.org
Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers
For all forms of caregiving. 229-928-1234, rosalynncarter.org.
Text helpline: Text TOUGH to 741741 for free, 24/7 crisis counseling.