As an only child growing up in Gardnerville, Nevada, Michelle Gordon had a close relationship with her mother, who had her when she was only 17. Her mother was adamant about volunteer work, and for Michelle that meant spending time in nursing homes where she read to residents. “Back then I had a connection with seniors,” Michelle said. “I spent a lot of time learning to be patient with elderly people.”
In 1991, Michelle moved to Lake Tahoe and lived with a family in Kings Beach where she worked as a caretaker for their elderly father who had Alzheimer’s. After a year, Michelle moved out and started a job at the Naughty Dawg, a rowdy pub in Tahoe City where locals would let loose. Michelle started as a cocktail waitress and recalls serving drinks out of dog bowls. “It was a good time to be young in Tahoe. There was live music every night,” she said.
She worked there for 13 years and eventually moved her way up to become the manager and partner until the Naughty Dawg closed in 2004. One day soon after, Michelle walked into an Olympic Valley boutique in search of eucalyptus bath salts. That was where she met Sue Waters, the owner of Lather & Fizz, a bath products shop. The two of them hit it off and began working together. “I always loved bath stores, actually almost opened one,” Michelle said. “That used to be my go-to thing.”
Michelle became the manager of Lather & Fizz and wears many hats to keep the small business functioning. “A lot of people don’t realize we make everything,” she said. Merchandise at the store includes bath products that are handmade by both women.
With a profound affection for her family and home, Michelle is a loving caregiver with a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Fighting to keep a small business alive demands unwavering grit. But Michelle’s biggest battle was caring for her mother through Lewy body dementia. Marveling at the wonders of Tahoe is what inspires Michelle to fight through her toughest days. This is her story.
Michelle said it’s been fun to watch Lather & Fizz, now almost 20 years old, grow and evolve, but it hasn’t been easy. “Our biggest issue is helping employees stay due to housing,” she said. “We hire wonderful employees that end up losing housing and leave.”
To maintain business operations amidst employee shortages, Michelle and Sue work double time in their Olympic Valley and Tahoe City stores. “We have actually had to close our Tahoe City store a few days a week because we just don’t have enough employees,” Michelle said.
Wildfires and this year’s large winter have also presented challenges. “Our new norm for running a business here is dealing with the elements,” she said. “Business shuts down when tourism isn’t here. People don’t live here so they pack up and leave when the smoke comes in. They pack up and leave when we have severe weather.”
In 2017 Michelle’s life changed course once again when her mother was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, a disease that affects cognitive function in seniors. Michelle became her mom’s caregiver and together they embarked on “the best and hardest” five years of fighting.
Despite the challenges in caretaking, Michelle said that there were happy moments each day. “I fought every day to make both of us laugh,” she said.
Eventually, Michelle’s mother required care services that weren’t available in Tahoe, so they moved back to Gardnerville. “The hardest part was the struggle to try and find help,” she said.
After being admitted to several hospitals and care facilities that were not able to adequately care for her mom’s condition, they finally found one where Michelle felt that her mother would be safe and cared for. She was admitted to a memory care unit in a nursing home on March 11, 2020. That night, the Covid lockdown went into effect. Michelle was stuck on the outside and was no longer allowed to see her mother.
“My mom went downhill pretty fast, not being able to see me,” she said. “Being locked away from me, my mom was very confused and very upset. They were trying to move her, and I felt like that was the worst thing for her.”
They were attempting to relocate Michelle’s mother to a different facility, but Michelle knew that wasn’t what was best for her. She fought to keep her mom at her nursing home and used every means possible to do so. Because of this fight, Michelle was recognized by the State of Nevada and awarded Caregiver of the Year in 2020.
Her mother’s health deteriorated, and she was eventually put on hospice. At that point, Michelle was allowed back into the facility but there were restrictions. “I was not allowed to hug her or touch her,” she said.
Michelle’s mother passed away in December 2020 at age 70.
Michelle’s passion for Alzheimer’s awareness and elder care remains, and she hopes to bring attention to the lack of care options for seniors and how it impacts their whole family. Michelle documented her journey caring for her mother through her Instagram account, @loveandlaughterwithmom. She is now using the social platform to fundraise for the Alzheimer’s Foundation as well as encourage others who are going through a similar experience with their loved ones.
“My mom was single when she had me, she was 17,” she said. “So we’ve always fought through life together. It’s always been the two of us, so now moving on has been hard for me too.”
A few weeks after her mom passed, Michelle came to Tahoe to reflect and reconnect. She walked along the trail near Sand Harbor. “I was just thinking of letting go, I was just trying to re-find me,” she said.
Before she passed, Michelle had asked her mother to leave heart-shaped rocks as a sign of her presence, and as she sat down to relax on the beach, she found the biggest rock in the shape of a heart. “I knew I was in the right place,” she said.
For more than a year, Michelle endured a lengthy commute to Tahoe for work until she was able to find a home on the West Shore. The house where she is now living was initially constructed as a residence for the landlord’s elderly mother, who needed to be cared for.
Life in Tahoe continues to present challenges, but Michelle is working diligently to discover herself in this new season of her life. She says that being a Tahoe local is a rewarding challenge that requires “a love for your surroundings and for the lake but an inner strength that gets you through what it takes to survive and make a living here.” It takes someone who has a unique kind of determination and passion, the ability to change with the seasons. And sometimes, it takes a heart-shaped rock on a beach to show us that it’s all worth it.