The actress and talk show host cares for her mother, who suffers from an incurable autoimmune disease

Credit: Nigel Parry

Despite her very public persona, Queen Latifah has long been private about her family life. But last spring as she was ramping up production for her syndicated daytime talk show, The Queen Latifah Show, the entertainer was taking on a personal commitment to take charge of her mother Rita Owens s round-the-clock medical needs.

Owens, 64, was diagnosed last year with scleroderma, an incurable autoimmune disease that has caused scar tissue build up (pulmonary fibrosis) in her lungs. Owens also has pulmonary hypertension (blood pressure in the lungs), which impacts her ability to breathe.

I wasn t going to do the show unless she came here, Latifah tells PEOPLE in its latest issue. I knew she was dealing with her health issues sometimes and I would not be able to get to her as easily.

Despite the challenges caring for someone who’s ill, Latifah, 44, says she can t imagine anyone else looking after her mother.

Anyone who has a job and then has a family member at home who is ill, it s 24 hours. You have to be there. They need you, says Latifah, who enlisted friends and family members to help out while she s at work. I try to be as in the moment and as present as possible. And then I try to get some sleep and go to work and be present there and then go home and be present there.

It s not a day or night that she doesn t peek her head in my room and make sure I m okay, says Owens, a former high school teacher. If it s medical she ll go in and grill the doctors and make sure they are doing what they are supposed to do. She sacrifices her time, her resources. She genuinely loves me and I know that.

For more from Latifah and her mother, including details on Owens condition and her treatment, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.