A daughter-in-law’s mission

NBC’s Natalie Morales uses her talents and skills to combat Alzheimer’s, which took her mother-in-law’s life.

NBC’s Natalie Morales has never been shy about lending her skills and talents to a cause. An avid runner, she competed in the Boston Marathon in 2014 as part of the “Today” show’s “Shine A Light” campaign, raising more than $70,000 for victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which she reported on. 

Recently, Morales was honored by the Alzheimer’s Association Connecticut Chapter at its “Celebrating Hope” gala at Greenwich’s Belle Haven Club. There are more than 78,000 people living with Alzheimer’s in Connecticut and more than 178,000 caregivers. The annual gala raises funds for research and helps support not only those with dementia but the critical caregivers who are faced with such a daunting challenge.

“Watching my mother-in-law, a loving, active woman, decline to the point where she did not know her husband, her children or grandchildren was heartbreaking,” Morales has said. “I am very passionate about raising awareness of this disease and the toll it takes on caregivers both emotionally and financially.”

On her website, the West Coast anchor of “Today” elaborates on the personal toll of this abysmal disease, which affects more than 5 million Americans, a number that is expected to triple in the coming decades, she writes, adding:

“My mother-in-law, Kay Rhodes, was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in her mid-50s. She had shown some symptoms for years before being diagnosed, but what we all mistook for absent-mindedness clearly and quickly progressed into the devastating disease. Though my father-in-law had long saved for their golden years, with plans of travel and great adventures, instead he found himself acting as a caregiver.

“He did it bravely on his own for the first 10 years but saw his own health suffer (as most caregivers do with the stress and difficulties of providing care for others). He finally put her in a specialized Alzheimer’s facility, where Kay continued to decline progressively. She did live more than 15 years, though her quality of life was zero. She could not walk, talk and had long lost any recognition of her loved ones. It was devastating to see the decline and heartbreaking to see a once beautiful, vibrant and very social woman, disappear before our very eyes.”

That’s why Morales has been a champion of the association for years.

“The more we learn now the better we are at planning for our future and doing all that we can to better educate and prepare for ourselves or our loved ones.”

Morales’ caring nature, which has served her well in an Emmy Award-winning career that has taken her across NBC’s platforms to cover everything from Hurricane Katrina to the election of Pope Francis, is the result in part of a peripatetic childhood. The self-styled Air Force “brat,” was born in Taiwan and raised in Panama, Brazil and Spain, learning Portuguese and Spanish in the process. She graduated summa cum laude from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and Latin-American studies and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

Recently, Morales — who has been reporting from the red carpet on NBC’s “Golden Globes” for six years — was host of NBCU’s entertainment magazine “Access” and co-host of “Access Live.” She announced her departure from these programs in April, reminding her “Access” family that she’s just “a few studio gates away” on the Universal lot. While she remains a key part of “NBC Nightly News,” “Dateline” and MSNBC hosting “Dateline” in syndication, she’s also enjoying the more breathable pace of West Coast life with her family.

 “I don’t want to have regrets from not experiencing other things and having other opportunities,” she told Working Mother magazine. “So, for me, the change of living a life that was perhaps a little more fulfilling and fun and being home more often with the kids, rather than being on the road covering tragic breaking news stories all the time, (was a no-brainer).”

Morales was gracious enough to answer a few questions for WAG about her involvement with the association and her relationship with her mother-in-law:

Would you tell us a little more about what was your mother-in-law like?

“Kay had the most beautiful soulful blue eyes, that my husband also has, so I feel like I still see her in his eyes. She was the kind of mother that lived for her kids and their accomplishments. Whether driving her kids to golf, basketball, football, cheerleading, ski lessons, she was always there for them and wanting them to have the best of everything. Kay’s family was from Midland, Texas, and she was salt of the earth. Her family always came first. She was also one of the first in her town to go off and travel the world out of high school, because she was interested in broadening her horizons and she was curious about the world. …When I first met Kay, she was obsessed with the stock market and CNBC and she got me interested in my own stock portfolio and gave me some good stock tips. So Kay taught me a lot about life and was a wonderful example of a loving mom and supportive wife.”

 July is our Fascinating Women issue. Is there a female role model who particularly influenced you?

“My own mother, of course, is one of my greatest role models. She grew up with very little in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Her grandmother, who was raising 13 kids of her own, helped raise her. My mother put herself through college and learned English, because she knew it would open doors for her. She is strong, passionate, loving and supportive — the kind of woman I try to be.  

“But there are also so many women whom I have worked with who are wonderful examples to me who helped pave the way and have encouraged me to ask for what I want and to speak up for myself more like Katie Couric and Meredith Vieira.”  

What advice would you give to young women and men seeking careers in journalism?

“Make sure you are passionate about being a journalist first and foremost. Do you love talking to people, telling powerful stories, witnessing world events? That’s the easy part. Here’s the hard part: Are you willing to work all hours of the night, holidays, etc.? Miss out on vacations and significant events? This is not a career for those who think of it as glamorous. I wake up at 3 a.m. still many times a week in my now 20-year career. Work very hard and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. You do you and find the kinds of stories you like to tell and make them yours. And finally, trust your gut. If that inner voice is telling you something isn’t right or doesn’t add up, it’s probably right. We live in a day and age where real ‘journalism’ is being lost in 140 characters or less. So do your homework and know your facts.”

For more, visit alz.org/ct and nbc.com.

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