Actor caring for her mother


July 13, 2022

‘P-Valley’ Star Brandee Evans Says Being Her Mom’s Caregiver Is ‘Bittersweet’

Taking care of “Momma,” who has Alzheimer’s and M.S., changed the actor’s life.

Brandee Evans doesn’t seem to half-ass anything. It’s been months since the actor wrapped filming on season two of P-Valley, the Starz hit drama. She’s back in Georgia, where the series is shot, keeping up with her beloved boot camp classes and attending physical therapy for an injury incurred on set. While her Instagram grid features the red-carpet-ready outfits and glitzy events you’d expect of a rising star, you’ll find more posts that capture the time she spends caregiving for her mother Diana Harrington, a.k.a. Momma.

Harrington was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004, and early-onset Alzheimer’s soon after. After Evans had to place her mother in a nursing home following a bad fall in 2014, she grew increasingly dissatisfied with the facility’s level of care. In 2016, Evans moved her mom into her L.A. home and the actor became one of the estimated 53 million people caring for a loved one in the U.S. (according to a 2020 report from AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, that number is steadily rising). Though Evans’s P-Valley success eventually gave her the financial freedom to hire several caregivers, she still devotes much of her time to her mom—and to creating community with fellow caregivers.

On her trip to Georgia, which she calls her “caregiving getaway,” Evans spoke to SELF about life as a caregiver, and how the experience has transformed her and her mother’s once-rocky dynamic.

SELF: You’ve said that you and your mom didn’t have the perfect relationship before you started caring for her. How has your bond evolved since then?

Brandee Evans: No, we didn’t—not at all. It was so surprising to friends back home, like, “Wait. Y’all are together now?!” When I first got Momma from the nursing home, she said, “Thank you for coming to get me.” I asked, “Did you think that I would leave you?!” She did, because of our relationship growing up. I said, “We’re here till your last breath or my last breath.” That was so profound for me because it was a reminder that even with early onset Alzheimer’s, she knew who was caring for her.

It’s funny because I’m getting this bittersweet relationship that I’ve always wanted with her—but she’s not the same mommy that I knew growing up. But I’m just thankful that she’s here, and that I know that she loves me. Deep down, she knows that I’m here for her too. I’ve asked her, “Do you know that I love you?” She said, “Yes, because of how you take care of me.” That’s all I wanted to hear my whole life.

Did your relationship shift pretty quickly because she was in this new, vulnerable situation?

Absolutely. A mentor I had at the time told me, “You’ve got to talk to her about the past, even if you don’t think she understands.” We had a really good conversation, where I said, “These things hurt me when I was a little girl, and I don’t know if I hurt you, but I’m sorry if I did.” It was a beautiful, necessary moment of forgiveness for us. I know that I couldn’t have cared for her in a healthy manner, had I not released that.

These days she can’t really communicate the way she wants to. But I feel that deep in her heart, she forgives me, and I forgive her for anything we had going on that was toxic. We’re just living in the moment and being grateful to have each other. I’ve never been more proud to be her daughter.

We love that your Instagram captures the joyful moments you find together while you’re caregiving too. Has your mom’s decline in language affected the types of things you like to do as mother and daughter?

I still take her out. We went to Mastro’s Steakhouse the other day for her birthday! We still have movie nights, we go to the nail salon. She gets massages from a company called Manly Handz—her arms are really tight, but every time they come, all of a sudden they can stretch out. And she loved those men, honey! I try to do things that I know she’d be doing if she was in 100% good health.

A caregiver plays many roles—driver, scheduler, shopper, and, of course, home health aide. How did you prepare to take on all these responsibilities?

My best friend Leatriece, the director of nursing at a hospital in Memphis, did CPR training with me twice. Friends who are nurses and doctors taught me how to change a draw sheet [a small folded sheet that can be easily removed from underneath someone or used to help lift them] and explained, “This is how you would turn her and keep her clean,” so Momma doesn’t have bed sores.

I would go to hospitals and ask to see their equipment and which type of mattress they used. I’d sit on the bed and examine everything to see how it worked. Then a friend and I would shop around L.A. to find the equivalent. Thank God P-Valley came right in time after the GoFundMe had run out because I was barely eating. I had just enough for Momma to eat, and friends were literally cooking for us and bringing food over.

Tell us about auditioning for P-Valley while you were still a full-time caregiver. You had to set up a camera to make sure she was safe while you were gone, right?

I couldn’t afford a caregiver and leaving her alone at home was the only thing I could do to get this audition. I knew it could change our lives! I got up really early that morning to feed her because I didn’t know how long the audition would take. At the time she could only move her arms a little bit, and I remember placing water in front of her, sitting her up so she wouldn’t choke, and testing out the camera. I talked to her all the way to the audition and all the way home. I did the same thing to make acting classes work—I remember checking the camera once and a pillow had turned and was kind of over the side of her face. I left class, sprinted home, moved the pillow, and ran back during the break!

You seem like somebody who brings their whole self—and a camera feed, when necessary!—to work. When you first started filming P-Valley, did you have any urge to compartmentalize your caregiving life? Or did you feel like you could be upfront right away?

I was afraid at first, but [creator and showrunner] Katori Hall is so understanding and family-focused. Very early in making season one, I was hiding in [character] Uncle Clifford’s office set to check in on my mom, who I’d brought with me to Atlanta. When friends who’d been helping told me the caregiver didn’t show up that day and Momma was alone, I just started bawling.

When Katori walked in, I tried to pull it together. But she told me to breathe and that it would be okay. Then the producers and crew started figuring out what they could do—Jeffrey, our production designer, was like, “We got an elevator, we need to build a ramp going up to your trailer.” After that, it wasn’t scary to say that I have this commitment.

How do you practice self-care and manage the stress of balancing it all?

Honestly, going to the gym early in the morning. It gives me that one time of the day when I’ve done something for me. If the day goes bad—if she throws up, if she can’t hold her head up—at least I can say I did something for me today. Like, even if you just get a hotel room and just sit by yourself for a day, it’s okay! I want people to know that it’s okay to step away to take time for yourself.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

We want to hear your story! Why? Because your story matters. Have you ever listened to someone talk about their life and thought ‘Oh, someone else has been through that, too? I thought it was just me!’ Every story shared is a chance to aid another caregiver and help them feel less alone.

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