11 posts categorized "The TGB Interview"

The TGB Interview: BETTY WHITE

Category_bug_interview About 25 years ago, when I was working on The Barbara Walters Specials, we interviewed actor Betty White at her home in Los Angeles. The first thing you notice is that needlepoint is everywhere – pillows, cushions, seat covers, wall hangings – all of it Betty's doing.

Since then, I've often repeated to friends a favorite moment from that interview:

Regularly, at the end of their workdays, Betty and her husband, Allen Ludden, relaxed with their favorite drink, vodka on the rocks with lemon, while Betty worked on a needlepoint project and they discussed what had happened at their respective television shows that day.

As Allen told an interviewer and Betty told us, one evening he looked around the room and, struck by the multitude of accumulated needlepoint, thought, “My god, we must drink a lot.”

Jacket Art - IF YOU ASK ME.C Kwaku Alston.design by Lisa Amorososmall On Tuesday this week, I spent some time on the telephone with Betty White. She has recently published a new memoir, If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), that is, like Betty herself, funny and wise and wonderful.

In preparation for the interview, I watched several of her recent television interviews during which she often warmly recalls her life with Allen Ludden who died in 1981. I asked if she marks the day each year, 10 June, that would have been their wedding anniversary.

”Yes, I celebrate quietly with myself. Allen is never far away. It's been 30 years since he died and he is still so prevalent in my home and in my life.”

The death of a wife or husband is a life crisis many people face in later years so I wanted to know what she has learned that might help others to get through it.

”I get a lot of fan letters with this question; it's one I always answer,” said Betty. “'You've been there, how did you manage?' they ask. There's no formula. Keep busy with your work and your life. You can't become a professional mourner. It doesn't help you or others. Keep the person in your heart all the time. Replay the good times. Be grateful for the years you had.”

You undoubtedly know that Betty has starred in a winning string of hit television shows throughout her more than 60 professional years. I'm sure a lot of TGB readers are old enough to remember Life With Elizabeth in the 1950s.

There have also been her bawdy role as the neighborhood nymphomaniac, Sue Ann Nivens, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show; the naïve Rose on the now-classic Golden Girls; and on her latest, the pot-smoking Elka in Hot in Cleveland. This is from the premier episode two seasons ago.

Many television actors rely on cue cards, but Betty has always memorized her scripts except, when she hosted Saturday Night Live (for which she won an Emmy in 2010), that wasn't possible:

”I can't stand cue cards,” said Betty. “People are always looking slightly off from the person they are talking to. But there are so many skits that are always changing during the week of rehearsals that I can't memorize them on Saturday Night Life. It drives me crazy.

“But they have a wonderful cue card man, Wally, who told me – if I'm with Tina Fey, for example – to look just over her head at him. 'Don't look at Tina and your eyes won't move and you'll be fine,' he said. 'Trust me.' I did, and it made all the difference.”

On other shows, she memorizes, and perhaps this helps: “I do a lot of crossword puzzles,” Betty told me. “I'm an addict. It keeps your mind limber.”

Betty has boatload of awards stretching back to her shows at the beginning of the television era. I asked if there are favorites among them.

”I really loved the Emmys from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I got the first Emmy on Golden Girls and I thought the first should have gone to Bea Arthur. I don't think there was any way to single out one of us. It was awkward.”

In January, the Screen Actors Guild gave Betty their Lifetime Achievement Award. Her acceptance speech stole the show - heartfelt, funny and a little bawdy. In other words, quintessential Betty White:

For more than 40 years, Betty has been an animal activist, working with the Los Angeles Zoo, the Morris Animal Foundation and other organizations, so you can't talk with Betty White without talking animals.

I was intrigued to read in her book – and jealous too – that she is friends with Koko, the famous chimpanzee who has a vocabulary of more than 2,000 words.

”Oh, my beloved Koko. I've visited her several times. What a lady she is," Betty said. "She named me Lipstick. She rubs her fingers across her lips and her trainer explained that is her sign for lipstick. She doesn't have many visitors who wear lipstick.”

Betty has talked about how elephants – or, at least, the ones she knows personally – like to have their tongues slapped.

Because I'm a patron of the [Los Angeles] zoo, I have backstage privileges with 'contact elephants.' I go walking with my buddy Gita and the keeper. No chains. No nothing. We all just walk around the whole zoo together.

“I say, 'Trunk up, Gita,' and when I slap her tongue, [it's like Gita is saying], 'Oh, she speaks my language' or...'Oh, are you from the same small town I'm from.'”

Betty will be 90 next January and is obviously way too busy to think much or be frightened about death. I asked her to repeat what her mother had told her about dying.

”That is the most comforting thing...I'm not looking forward to death; it's important to live while we are here. But those who have died, my mother said, now they know the secret. And someday we all will.”

“Now they know the secret.” I'm tucking that away in a special memory drawer to pull out when I want to think about it from time to time.

As we wound up our conversation, she recalled that The Barbara Walters Special I'd worked on so long ago had been scheduled to be broadcast at Christmas time.

”So your crew brought in some beautiful logs for the gas fireplace that would be seen on camera burning in the background. They're still there 25 years later,” Betty told me. “I tell friends they are the Barbara Walters logs.”

In any medium - on the telephone, in her television appearances and in her charming, funny memoir - Betty White is a delight, nothing less than a national treasure. Speaking with her is a lot like spending time with an old friend you haven't seen in awhile; you feel like you've always known her.

Best of all, she's is a fantastic ambassador to the world for elderhood.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Terry Hamburg: Europe on $5 a Day

The TGB Interview: Robert Lipsyte

Category_bug_interview Back in 2007, I appeared on three episodes of a PBS series titled, Life (Part 2). It was a load of fun and among the people I had the pleasure of meeting was Robert Lipsyte. Now, the second season of Life (Part 2) is being broadcast on the web in addition to PBS channels around the U.S. and Bob is the host this season.

Lipsyte175wYou have probably heard of him. He is a long-time city and sports columnist for The New York Times, the author of 16 books including In the Country of Illness: Comfort and Advice for the Journey (I highly recommend it) and such young adult novels as The Contender, One Fat Summer and Raiders Night. In 1966 and in 1996, he won Columbia University’s Meyer Berger Award for distinguished reporting.

In 1992, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary. In June 2001, he won the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards award for lifetime achievement in young adult literature. A former network correspondent at CBS and NBC, Lipsyte won an Emmy in 1990 for on-camera achievement as host of the nightly WNET public affairs broadcast, “The Eleventh Hour.”

Bob graciously agreed to put up with a few questions from me about the new series and about what it's like for him to get older.

RONNI BENNETT: What is the goal of the Life Part 2 series?
Comfort and advice and moral support for the rest of the journey. You're not alone. Kind of what you're doing, Ronni, but with moving pictures.

RB: What one or two things did you learn from hosting Life Part 2, that surprised you?
How many active, smart, beautiful people - people called elderly or old - are out there leading meaningful lives.

RB: Episode one has been released online this week. Give us a brief overview...
I loved that discussion but was chilled by the one-on-one with Cathie Black, president of Hearst Magazines, who talked about dealing with younger bosses. Learn their language and culture, she said, keep up with technology, dress cooler and never, ever say things like “The way we used to do this...” What about experience? What about the life we've lived so far? Makes me want to eat the young.

RB: Let's get personal for a bit. When you were young, what did you think getting old would be like?
Who thought about it? Did you, Ronni? I looked at my cranky, creaky grandparents and swore I would never be like them and if I started getting that way I'd swim out to sea. Actually, I thought my parents were always pretty old and didn't realize how full of life they really were until they were in their eighties and I was in my fifties.

RB: How is it different from what you thought?
I'm only aware of my “oldiness” as a reflection from those younger people who find me either invisible or in the way (sometimes both, crash!) and contemporaries who feel decrepit and complain incessantly about their health and/or being on a scrap heap. It's like years after an illness when people ask "How are you?" in that sepulchral tone that you suddenly remember that you had been sick.

RB: How are you most different from your youthful self?
I'm simply less sure of what I absolutely know. More than anything, compassion and the ability to see both sides really slows you down. I'm writing my memoirs, An Accidental Sportswriter: Lessons from the Locker-Room, and on every page I come up against my younger self and I often cringe at his righteousness and certainty. I've been interviewing people who were subjects and colleagues from those days and their memories reinforce that sense of change. Positive change, I think.

RB: What, if anything, do you miss about being young?
Time. That endless horizon of time to swing and miss and try again. I feel more pressure to get it right, right now, finish the new book, nail the next show, not so much before I die but before something else in life pops up and gets in the way, illness, a complication. Maybe it's not just time, but the sense that the time isn't empty, that tomorrow isn't promised and if it comes, there will be a list of chores.

RB: It is a cliché that people mellow as they get older. I haven't found that to be true for me. What about you?
You talkin' ta me?

RB: What is the biggest surprise to you – positive or negative – about getting old?
I think I've copped to getting older, Ronni, not to getting old. I don't know what being "old" means. Is it a condition? Of what? When my Dad died a few months shy of 101, I was 67. He was still sharper, more skeptical and yet more empathic than I was, but I could certainly move faster.

He lived alone and had only recently quit driving. We talked about being older a lot. Mostly agreed on things (finally!). We felt sorry for younger people who were unable to open themselves to take advantage of our experience without feeling threatened.

We enjoyed not having to be au courant (he was mostly reading ancient history at this point and re-reading the 19th Century novels of his early education). My kids, his grandkids, felt pressure to see the new movies and read the new novels so they could talk with their peers. We didn't (take that, Cathie Black!)

RB: What do you like best about getting old? Least?
Same answer to both questions - not dealing with the anxiety of being young. Yet there was an excitement and energy in that anxiety.

RB: People are fond of saying – joke or not - “If I'd only known then what I know now.” What do you wish you'd known when you were young?
That most everyone is as scared as I am. Especially in high school and college, I was intimidated by people, alot of them girl people and fellow writer people, who seemed so confident. They obviously knew what they were doing while I sure didn't. I was middle-aged before I figured out that they were just better actors. I would have avoided a lot of angst had I known that. I try to tell this to young people. The frankly scared ones don't believe me and the confident actors scurry away.

RB: How have your pleasures changed over the years?
Only in degree. I eat and drink more, bicycle more, read more, talk more with friends and family, and think about sex more.

RB: Ageism is a serious problem that diminishes old people in the eyes of everyone. What personal encounters have you had with ageism?
At the moment I'm very lucky to be the geezer host of a boomer show with Gen X staffers. But certainly as a sportswriter and an author of young adult fiction, I see the genre gatekeepers lust for the next new.

Far more importantly, I see the culture's readiness to discard, warehouse, disappear older people and MOST IMPORTANTLY I see, with growing bewilderment and some anger, the passivity of so many older people, the seeming willingness to let it happen. Take to the streets!

I think ageism is as important as racism and sexism and should make common cause. I think of the chorus of walkers in The Producers. Can you imagine that power unleashed? I hate the selfishness of some older people - Medicare for me but you're on your own - and yearn for a new version of Gray Panthers. Should we start something, Ronni?

RB: Much of the media about or directed at old people references boomers almost exclusively as though I (born in 1941) and you (born a bit earlier) and the rest of the 35 million or so pre-boomers are no longer of consequence. Is this a new kind of ageism, do you think, separating the boomers from the – well, ancients, I guess?
I call us the Classic Generation. I also remember as a young reporter in the Sixties wishing all that deadwood, the reporters in their forties and fifties and beyond, would get out of my way. I think every generation has to push through the crowd ahead. Watch the boomers get busted.

RB: What does this series have to say about age discrimination in the workplace?
We only deal with it frontally in one show but it pervades all the shows in the sense that we hope we offer the kind of support and advice that gives people the confidence of knowing they are not alone and can push back.

RB: Whom do you admire in terms of how they have aged? Do you have a role model for getting older?
That's easy. Dad. There were sags in his spirit - especially after he retired in his late sixties and when Mom died (she was 90, he was 94) but he bounced back. He was resilient. He came through the traumas of the Titanic sinking (heard it on his crystal set), WWI and II, the Great Depression, the wave of American murders of our best leaders and our foreign misadventures, and he got psychic scar tissue just from surviving. He taught me that nothing is as good or bad as your imagination can make it.

RB: After all the time you've spent over the past months concentrating on aging for this series, what words of wisdom about getting old do you have?
Not so wise and not always easy, but keep your old friends and make some new ones. Of all ages. Remember what gave you pleasure once - music, reading, gem-polishing, watching baseball - and reconnect with it. Practice portion control, shake your butt and don't give up until they zip the bag. Also - watch LIFE(Part2) and read Time Goes By. We're a community as long as we last.

This is a clip from Life (Part 2) episode one in which therapist Terrence Real discusses boomer marriage. It runs 1:44 minutes. You can watch the entire episode here at the Life (Part 2) website.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, sltmas: Winds of Summer

The TGB Interview: Dr. Robert N. Butler

RobertbutlersmCategory_bug_interview I discovered Robert N. Butler, M.D. when I first started researching aging a dozen years ago through his Pulitzer Prize-winning book,Why Survive? Being Old in America. My copy, even in hardback, is tattered and worn now, Post-It noted and marked up to within an inch of its life, as it is one of the “bibles” I regularly use to think about aging and as a reference for this blog.

Dr. Butler, a gerontologist, researcher, psychiatrist and public servant, coined the term “ageism” in 1968, founded the first department of geriatrics at a U.S. medical school at The Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City in 1982, and is president and CEO of the International Longevity Center – USA. Throughout his career, he has been an eloquent advocate for the rights of elders.

Butlerbookam2 In his new book, The Longevity Revolution – The Benefits and Challenges of Living a Long Life, Dr. Butler brings his vast knowledge and experience to bear on the wide-ranging and dramatic changes that must be made in politics and society – and the reasons for them - to accommodate humankind’s increased longevity. It is a brilliant, intelligent book that, if I had the funds, I would send to every politician in Washington, D.C. and every reader of this blog.

Dr. Butler made time his schedule to answer my questions for this TGB Interview, and I am most grateful to him.

RONNI BENNETT: What do you mean by the title of your new book, The Longevity Revolution?
The longevity revolution refers to the fact that we gained 30 additional years of life in the 20th century, greater than had been achieved during the preceding 5000 years of human history. This is revolutionary in character and unprecedented. Just to give one example, in 1776 the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 35. In the year 1900 it was 47 and today 77.

RB: What are a few of the ways global aging will affect the world in the coming decades?
If we think we have serious issues with Social Security and healthcare, imagine aging of the developing world. Global aging will affect the global economy, character of disease, socioeconomic circumstances, politics and culture.

RB: You suggest in your book that we could lose those gains in longevity you mentioned. How would that happen?
Were we to have a human-to-human mutation of the bird virus we could lose the longevity we have gained. Furthermore, we predicted in an article in The New England Journal several years ago that because of the rising obesity epidemic in young people, we could reach a point where the younger generation lives fewer years than the older generation.

RB: You state unequivocally that an aging population does NOT account for rising health costs and that excessive medical costs are NOT associated with the end of life. A lot of people don’t believe that…
It is technology, drugs, so far, that account for the rising health costs not the aging of the population. This could change, of course, with increasing aging. End-of-life care can be expensive whenever end of life occurs. For example, a young person in an automobile accident, a young woman with breast cancer, but in old age per se, the per capita expenditure at the end of life actually declines and the proportion of Medicare that goes to end-of-life care has remained stable for more than the last 20 years.

RB: The federal government has just released some scary statistics on Medicare – that at its current level of payout, spending will exceed revenue by 2019. Do you have a solution?
The solution to the issue of Medicare is to change the reimbursement system which favors the procedural and technological specialties rather than primary care. It does not adequately support prevention.

The solution to Medicare ultimately has to be reforms in the healthcare system in general. We need new systems of healthcare delivery, more primary care, more prevention, more investments in research and a better trained healthcare workforce to take care of old people.

RB: How can Medicare be improved? Is it a good model for universal coverage?
Medicare could be a very good model for universal coverage. Administrative costs approximate two percent. The private health insurance industry costs up to 20 percent. This is because of advertising, marketing, claims adjustment and profits.

RB: You advocate development of “a vigorous politics of aging and longevity.” How confident are you that it can happen? What will happen if it does not develop?
While I favor a vigorous politics of aging and longevity, at the moment we do not have a great exponent comparable to the leadership of the late Claude Pepper. The reason, I think, it may happen is the baby boomers will grow old and then the 65+ population will be 20 percent of the entire population, 25 percent of the adult population and probably some 30 percent of the vote.

RB: With 70-year-old Senator John McCain the presumptive Republican candidate for president, what would you advise voters about considering his age when deciding to vote for him or not?
I am concerned that there is a storm of ageism being projected against Senator John McCain. Yet there have been great leaders of great age such as Charles DeGaulle in post-war France, Konrad Adenauer in post-war Germany. The issue is not age, the issue is function, that is, intellectual and physical capabilities to carry out the job.

RB: It is obvious that with our longer lives, elders are capable of working beyond the standard age-65 retirement and many want to. Even so, they are shoved out of the workplace and corporate America keeps insisting it needs to outsource jobs to other countries because they cannot find enough qualified workers here. How can those attitudes be changed?
Some corporations are actually concerned about the impending retirement of the baby boomers. They fear the loss of executive and managerial talent. There is also a concern over the fact that within 15 years, 50 percent of all nurses will have retired. There will also be shortages of air controllers and atomic energy personnel. The opportunities to work longer may be upon us.

RB: We all know that sometimes an idea hardly exists until it is given a name. How did you come to coin the term “ageism”?
In my own neighborhood, housing for older people was acquired and my neighbors were up in arms: “We don’t want all those older people around.” There was no term to explain this prejudice and so I decided, analogous to the terms sexism and racism, we could use a new useful term which I called “ageism”.

RB: In the 40 years or so since you coined the term ageism, have you seen improvements in prejudice against elders?
There may have been some improvements in age discrimination. For example, there is an Age Discrimination in Employment Act which has virtually ended mandatory retirement. There have been some improvements in nursing homes and I think some greater sensitivity about age. But we are a long way from having conquered the prejudices regarding aging.

RB: How have myths and prejudices regarding the nature of aging affected our culture generally?
Life has to be based on hope and expectation of a positive future. When that future is removed as in the case of old age it builds dissatisfaction, disappointment and depression. This obviously affects our culture.

RB: For most of the history of mankind, in most cultures, elders were revered for their knowledge and experience. How did that change?
When older people were relatively rare, adoration was easy. As they became more common, especially when impaired, they were experienced as a burden.

RB: As you point out, only 11 U.S. medical schools have departments of geriatrics and schools cannot fill the first-year geriatric residencies that are available. What does this mean to an aging population? Will the quality of healthcare for elders decline? Has it already? What is the solution?
The care of older people is not what it should be and it could get worse. We have to build new ways of providing care not only including the development of trained geriatric physicians but also geriatric nurse practitioners, home health aides, social workers and others.

RB: Is there any way to change young physicians’ preference for specialties in dermatology and cosmetic surgery over geriatrics? Why do so many more young physicians go into geriatrics in Britain than in the U.S.?
The reason young physicians go into dermatology, cosmetic surgery and other procedural specialties is, in part, economic. On average, a medical student graduates with $150,000 in debt. We have to change the financial incentives to encourage people to go into geriatrics. South Carolina has created a debt relief programs for those who go into geriatrics. Senator Barbara Boxer of California has introduced legislation to do so on a national level. Payment structures in Great Britain are much better.

RB: What can elders do personally to help ensure their health and that they get the best medical care possible day to day?
It is never too late to develop good health habits and it is always too soon to stop. Older people can engage in important physical fitness program not only aerobic in character, but particular muscle-building. For example, the status of the quadriceps or the thigh muscle is one of the best predictors of frailty.

RB: In the past, I’ve written about “responsible aging” on my blog and was pleased to see your reference to it in your book. Would you explain your sense of the phrase?
The last data I have seen is that older people contribute about 33 hours a year, a little more than an hour a week in voluntary service. Older people, of course, have many burdens to deal with, particularly taking care of a spouse or a grandchild. Even so, I would like to encourage older people to play a greater social role, contributing to society in general.

RB: What is your view of Aubrey deGray and others who believe human life can be extended for up to 200 years. Is this a worthwhile goal?
I think the extravagant claims for longer life by people like deGray are questionable, indeed. We do know that it is increasingly likely that we will be able to slow aging while at the same time delay the onset of diseases. This means that we should devote new financial resources to understanding the basic biology of aging, but we should not get carried away.

RB: Would you explain why good neonatal and pediatric care are important to aging societies?
Many of the diseases of old age really had their origins early in life due to genes, the environment and behavior. Therefore, we need a lifespan perspective with regard to health promotion and disease prevention and the way in which we provide medical care including the importance of neonatal and pediatric care.

RB: One of your most radical proposals is for family planning along with population reduction and stabilization to meet the challenges of aging societies. Many people will recoil. How can you convince them otherwise?
It was not long ago that people were concerned about the “population crisis”. There has been considerable success, particularly in Europe and Japan. Indeed, more than desirable.

I do not favor the situation in Japan and Europe where birth rates are below the replacement level. I do favor stabilization of population. It gives us greater control over the financing of health and pension benefits and provides for better quality of life rather than overburdening facilities with huge population growth. Furthermore, we know that population size is not directly related to economic prosperity. Think of prosperous, small countries like Switzerland, Singapore and Norway.

RB: What needs to change for your proposals to deal with an aging society to succeed?
I think we need a transformation of both the culture and personal experience of growing older for proposals to deal with an aging society to succeed. We need to overcome denial and take a good direct look at what we need to change.

RB: Are you optimistic that governments will make the changes necessary to deal with global aging?
I am always a guarded optimist and I do think the baby boomers, a very large generation, may be transformative. I am not sure they will be able to benefit as much themselves but that they will contribute to improved quality of life for the generations that follow.

RB: What can individuals, especially those who are elders now, do to contribute to the needs of an aging society?
Older individuals themselves can contribute directly through civic engagement through the kinds of work that is being undertaken by Marc Freedman of Civic Ventures and by Jack Rosenthal at ReServe. In other words, older people should continue to contribute to society.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mage Bailey celebrates the arrival of spring in Play Ball.]

The TGB Interview: Alex Bennett

AlexbennettsmCategory_bug_interview Full disclosure: Alex Bennett is my former husband. We met when I was 17, married when I was 25 and divorced when I was 31. He has known me longer than anyone else alive which I find comforting in some manner. Although we didn't speak for a decade or so following our divorce, these days we're friendly.

Alex has been a radio host since his teen years, having done shows in San Rafael, Reno, Houston, Minneapolis, Chicago, San Francisco, Miami and New York. He is opinionated, outspoken and funny - on air and in life. I produced his show when we were married and we were better as professional colleagues than life partners.

These days, he can be heard live on The Alex Bennett Program on Sirius Left satellite radio, channel 146 from 9AM to noon ET. He describes his show as "political discussion punctuated by tap dancing." For awhile, some years ago, he hosted a television show and has won two local Emmy Awards. Alex is a regular contributor to Hustler magazine.

Ronni Bennett: How is getting older different from what you expected it to be when you were young?
Alex Bennett:
I thought I was immune to it and that I could compensate for its effects.

RB: What do you like best about getting old?
These days, absolutely nothing. Years ago it at least got you a seat on the subway. Today forget even that.

RB: What do you like least?
The endless procession of doctors who see you as a new yacht.

RB: A lot of older workers run into age discrimination in the workplace. Does being on radio rather than television insulate you from that?
No doubt about it. Besides that, Sirius has a lot of gray running around the place and any younger person working there can learn from the best.

RB: Does your audience know how old you are? Does it matter?
They have an idea. To some, it is used as a weapon, especially those who support Obama and would like to push us to the margins of society.

RB: John McCain is being attacked more frequently lately as being too old -€“ 72 at inauguration if he is elected - to be president. What do you think?
Well, death or incapacity could be more of a reality at his age as it is for the rest of us, so who he chooses as his VP is crucial. Obama will no doubt use his age as a negative.

RB: How are you different as a radio host at age 68 than you were at - oh, say 30 or 35?
Sure, I'm better. I have more of a skill set.

RB: How well do you think old people are represented on television and in movies?
Not as badly as in some other areas of show business. There have been, however, a preponderance of ageist jokes on TV lately where McCain is concerned, but no racist ones about Obama or overtly sexist jokes about Hillary.

RB: What are some of the differences between being old today and when we were young, do you think?
I think there was more respect. Prior to the rock 'n' roll revolution in the '50s, there wasn't even a youth culture to be venerated.

RB: What do you think of the younger generations today?
Basically they are selfish. It's the generation of "Me". But they were made that way by their parents who kept telling them how wonderful they were.

RB: What, if anything, bothers you about being old in the United States today?
There are no perks.

RB: How do you think getting old in the United States is different for men and women?
I think that it has to be worse for a woman. My woman friend was very lucky that she landed a good job at 55 and she is delighted. But I saw her looking for one and it was a frightening experience for her. For men, old age starts at say 55, but for women it may be as young now as 45.

RB: What's the biggest surprise - positive or negative - about getting old?
That I actually got old.

RB: Who are your role models for getting old?
Sean Connery. He played old before he truly was.

RB: We were still married when your father died at a young age - 60, I believe. He was very special to me. What do you remember most about your father?
He was my idol. I still live by the rules he taught me. He also gave me my sense of humor.

RB: What old people, in your life, have been an inspiration?
Our old cat Shabbas. He lived to be 18 and lived by the mantra, "If there's food in the bowl, then how bad can things be?"

RB: What, if anything, do you miss about your youth?
Jumping up and down a lot without getting winded.

RB: How are you different from when you were young?
It now takes me all night, what I used to be able to do all night.

RB: Do you have any age-related diseases or ailments? How do they affect your daily life?
The usual, enlarged prostate and IBS. The prostate is back to normal due to the medicines they have today. The biggest problem with them is their effect on the libido. As for the IBS, it has become manageable. So neither, once managed, have affected my daily life.

RB: You are 68 years old. How much longer do you want to continue working? What are you plans for the future?
I want to die while on the air.

RB: What do you believe is the purpose of life?
If I had that answer, I'd be doing it.

RB: Is the world better or worse off now than when you were young?
Better technologically. Worse politically and economically.

RB: Do you think about dying?

RB: Do you believe in an afterlife? If so, what is it like?
Not really. Maybe a continuation of this one. But then I'd have to get into string theory and that would be long and involved.

RB: What one thing have you learned about life you'd like people to know?
Never, ever argue with an ex-wife.

RB: Are you ever sorry we didn't stay married?
Like I said, never, ever argue with an ex-wife!

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lia explains how she dealt with an age-old childhood fear in Bogeyman.]

The TGB Interview: Mrs. Hughes

Coy_carol_150Category_bug_interview A couple of months ago, I posted a video of standup comic Mrs. Hughes. Many readers loved it and "Mrs. Hughes" has since become the top search term that brings readers to Time Goes By. Both lilalia of Yum Yum Café and Cowtown Pattie of Texas Trifles suggested I do a TGB Interview with the comedian, and so today, here it is.

Mrs. Hughes was 40 when she began doing standup and 26 years later she’s still at it. Why we aren’t seeing more of this funny woman on television is beyond me, but she has taped an interview with Florence Henderson on Retirement Living TV and I’ll let you know when it will be broadcast.

She also appears frequently on cruise ships (“The Funniest Grandma on the Seven Seas”) and around the country. You can see her upcoming schedule here. And she has released two CDs. Information on how to order them is at the bottom of the interview.

Before we get started, here is Mrs. Hughes’ video for those who have not seen it or would like to see it again. She is an elder who does us proud, and will make you laugh out loud.

RONNI BENNETT: Comedians don't generally make their debut at age 40. How did that come about for you?
I was at Weight Watchers and the lecturer was a comic. I asked how to become one and she said write five funny minutes and go to open mike night at the Improv. I had five funny minutes already so she and I went. I went on at midnight and got a standing ovation. That was the start of it all.

RB: Did you work before you became a full-time comedian?
I used to lecture on antiques, do craft fairs but never a real job.

RB: When did you first discover that you're funny?
I don't know, I could always tell a good story. My Dad was funny and a great story teller.

RB:Is being a standup comedian fun?
Yes, you get to sleep all day, you're the center of attention, and make pots of money. The travel is the only not fun part. Sitting around airports can get very dull.

RB: What or who makes you laugh out loud?
My kids and grandkids make me laugh. Do you know who Craig Ferguson is? He is on after Letterman. He always makes me laugh. I love Ellen as well.

RB: Some of your humor is distinctly women-oriented - menopause, being a wife, etc. Do men and women react differently to your act?
Not really. Kids have even told me they love my act (PG).

RB: Aging is also a good part of your act, so let's talk about that a bit. What's the best part of getting older for you?
People help my put my bags in the overhead on the plane.

RB: And the worst?
How do these people know I need help?

RB:How is getting old different from what you imagined when you were young?
I don't know. My husband is older and I just thought he was cranky. Now I'm getting cranky. I am just waiting to pick a fight.

RB: What, if anything, do you miss about your youth?
I didn't know how pretty I was. I wish I had known so I could enjoy it instead of missing it. I look in the mirror and I am horrified at how old I look.

RB: What's the biggest surprise - positive or negative - you've encountered about getting older?
I couldn't wait to get boobs and now I just want to get them out of the way of my putt.

RB: Who are your role models for getting older?
Betty White. I adore her.

RB: How comfortable are you thinking of yourself as old?
I'm okay with it. I loved being 40. Fifty was hard, but I'm okay with 60.

RB: Age discrimination in the workplace is a big difficulty for many older workers. What affect, if any, does it have on a 66-year-old comedian?
This has been a problem since I started stand up. It was very difficult to get many people to realize that I was serious about being a comic. Even my husband thought it would end up in the attic with the Afghan I started knitting. I thought my fabulous career was waning and that's when I went on the ships. Now with the amazing success of my video I am in demand again. I guess I am an overnight sensation after 25 years.

RB: From what I've seen on your video, your personal life is a big inspiration for your comedy. How true is that?
Almost everything in my act is actually a part of my life. That is why it is so difficult for people who want to write for me. My act rings true and all of it has made me laugh.

RB: The subject of getting old has a long tradition in standup comedy. Jack Benny was 39 forever. Phyllis Diller has had a good run with it. So did George Burns. What did you learn from them?
All the comics you cited were inspirational. I admire and loved Henny Youngman, Myron Cohen, Totie fields. They were funny without the language that permeates everyones act today.

RB: What contemporary comedians do you admire?
Again Craig Ferguson, Ellen. I love the Blue Collar Guys. There are some not so famous comics that I adore - Tom McGillen, Woody Pittman, Lizette Mizelle, to mention a few.

RB: There's an old belief that clowns - comedians - are laughing on the outside, crying on the inside. Do you think that's true?
Yeah. There have been so many suicides and drug overdoses that it is impossible to overlook the underlying sadness. Nearly every comic I know has had major trauma in their lives.

RB: Why "Mrs. Hughes" and not your full name?
I started out as Mrs. John Hughes. For some reason, that confused people and they thought my husband was the comic. I dropped the John mainly because I hate to type and not using John made my name shorter. I think we are way too familiar with each other. There is no respect for teachers, seniors, any authority. I hate having to tell some pimply-faced pizza boy my first name. I don't want to be chummy with the teller at the bank. I prefer to do business with some one efficient rather than a pal.

RB: Have your kids inherited your humor?
Yes, my kids are the funniest people I know.

RB: What is one lesson you've learned about life you would like everyone to know?
You can do any thing you want. You just have to work at it. It may be harder to achieve things when you are older, but you can succeed.

Mrs. Hughes has released two CDs - one is PG and the other, she says, is R-lite. You may order one for $15 or both for $25 by sending a check or money order to:

Mrs. Hughes
P.O. Box 1507
Pismo Beach, CA 93448

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Susan Gulliford recalls a special Valentine's Day Dinner.]

His Illegal Self by Peter Carey

Peter CareyCategory_bug_interview For 15 years or so in our small, Greenwich Village condominium, the Australian-born writer Peter Carey was my neighbor. Certainly you know him from such novels as Bliss, Jack Maggs, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, My Life as a Fake, Theft and the two for which he won the Man Booker Prize, Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, among other worldwide literary awards.

Today, Peter’s newest novel, His Illegal Self, appears for sale in stores in the United States and online. I will leave reviews to those who get paid to do that (some are here at Peter's new website) and say only that I read it in a single sitting and will undoubtedly reread it - soon. It is now my favorite of Peter’s books, but I say that after reading each new one. You will get a good sense of some of it in the interview below.

Since Peter is only two years younger than I am, I took advantage of our friendship and today’s publication event to talk with him not only about the new novel, but about getting older – in which he indulged me.

RONNI BENNETT: It is common for old people to say they don't feel old and I think what they usually mean is the are not much different on the inside from when they were younger. Do you find that to be so?
I still haven’t gotten over my introduction at Barnes and Noble as “the venerable Peter Carey.” Don’t get me going.

RB: Many people on this blog have mentioned the occasional shock at how old they appear when they look in a mirror. "Who IS that old guy or woman?" they say to themselves. Does that resonate with you?
I shave in the shower. I have no need for a mirror, and of course I would look fine if I accidentally saw myself. You want to talk about old, it’s a shame you missed my mother. I remember her showing me her hands, the hands. These were old hands. Eighty years old. She said, I can’t believe these are my hands. To tell you the truth, Ronni, I can’t believe these are my hands either.

RB: What's the biggest surprise - positive or negative - you've encountered about getting older?
To be fifty-eight years old and suddenly in the middle of a divorce was not amongst my big ambitions. When it happened, I thought my life was over. I thought, I’ll bring my kids up and then I’ll die. Mind you, that was a bad night in a hotel in Tokyo. I had bronchitis but was certain it was pneumonia. I know you’ll be grateful if I spare you all the symptoms.

Two years later I met a wonderful woman. I was dreading my sixtieth birthday, but when the day arrived, I was in love and happy and I looked around the table at my friends and the gorgeous woman beside me and perhaps it was the lighting or perhaps it was my heart, but everything was suddenly golden. I was in loved and loved. I have blessed every day since then.

RB: When you were young, what assumptions did you have about getting old that have turned out to be false? Any that are true?
I figured people stopped having sex by the time they were fifty.

RB: When you were a kid, what did you think being old was like? How is it different now?
See above.

RB: What do you like about getting older?
To see how wrong I was about everything.

RB: Are you comfortable, at nearly 65, of thinking of yourself as old?
Well, I keep announcing that I’m 65, but only in the hope of surprising people. It’s upsetting when it doesn’t work.

RB: Do you think people treat you differently now than when you were young that is attributable to getting older?
When I was eighteen in Australia, I couldn’t get served in a bar because I looked like a baby. Now I get served - whoosh - like that. When I was young, no-one would wait for me to finish my sentences. Now they wait for me to finish my sentences. Of course, this comes at a time when I can no longer remember what I was going to say.

RB: What, if anything, do you miss about your youth?
Beef Rendang, Chili Crab, the fiery tiny dishes in the windows of Sumatran restaurants.

RB: Have there been old people who have inspired you in life?
My grandfather and grandmother were as important to me as I parents. It would never have occurred to me that old people might ever be marginal. They were central in my life. They loved me and I loved them.

RB: Aside from the fact that everyone, with time, gets better at what they do, how has getting older affected or changed your writing?
I’m not sure it’s true that we all get better at what we do. We can all think of artists whose early work was the most remarkable aspect of their output, but put that to one side. The great thing about getting older is that you contain all the lives you lived before. You may have liver spots on your hands but you are also an eight-year-old boy with smooth skin and clear eyes.

I’ve just finished a novel, His Illegal Self, whose protagonist is an eight year old boy. People read it and are moved. They say, well you’ve written this so well, it must be because you are close to your sons. Well, I am close to my sons and I will not say that hasn’t affected what I write. But the most easily over-looked aspect of inventing literature is that we spin so much from within.

And yet this, of course, is to ridiculously oversimplify the business of inventing character, a mystery that should never, ever be reduced to experience or observation. As a young man, I was always eager to demystify the mumbo-jumbo of “creation” but it is now clear to me that it is a sort of magic and we are, all of us - readers and writers alike - short-changing ourselves when we try to explain it in terms of the writer’s own short and narrow life.

We interrupt this interview for a video about His Illegal Self (1:35 minutes). Part 2 continues below.

RB: His Illegal Self takes place in the early ‘70s amidst the radical politics and social constructs of the time. What drew you to write about this period?
I had very fond memories of living in what you might call a hippie community – in tropical Queensland more than thirty years ago. This was a radical place, although not in the sense your question suggests. I was drawn back there because I wanted to inhabit that space, that rainforest, that lovely humid fecund air. Of course my main characters – Che and Dial – are from new York and Boston and they won’t like that environment at all. But that’s their point of view, not mine.

For me it was a strong desire to reinvent a magical place. So that’s the first step towards His Illegal Self.

RB: What was the starting point for the novel?
I began with the vision of two fugitive Americans, this hippie mother (as I thought of her) and this little boy, walking along a Queensland road. There is a huge scary storm coming. All the cars are coming the other way, their lights on in the middle of the day. These hitch-hikers have no idea of where one earth they are.

RB: Well, the relationship between Dial and Che is…
…more complicated than I at first imagined. At the start I was not even sure what they were running from. How did they get into this mess? I didn’t know.

RB: Trevor - one of the feral hippies that take Dial and Che in, for a price - Dial, and Che have a complicated relationship that runs from derision to love and a sense of connection. Were these adoptive and seemingly strange parental relationships between them intended to make a statement about the notion of family?
My friends read the book this way. For myself, I was heading towards a moment in Che’s life where he would know, without any doubt, that he was deeply and fully loved.

RB: How did you come to the voice of a seven-year-old boy from Park Avenue?
Don’t want to sound too woo-woo about this, but voices do come to me. They are not the result of observation or study but like Hugh in my novel Theft for instance, come from some place that one might describe - if it did not run the risk of sounding self-congratulatory - as magical. But also we have all been children so it isn’t hard for any of us to see the world from that point of view.

RB: Are there old characters in any of your early books that now, with the experience of getting older yourself, you would like to have written differently?
I suppose I could cite Illywhacker which is narrated by a 139-year-old liar. I might say that I could have drawn the protagonist, Herbert Badgery, more realistically, given him a stroke, say, and written from within the stroke, and that is true. But everything about the book - it’s 600 pages - is sheer cheek. It’s mad ambition, everything good about it, is the work of a forty-year-old. I am not suggesting that 65-year-olds don’t write ambitious books. Indeed, I am deep into something now which I hope will be the best thing I have ever done, stretching, wild, but it will not be like watching a 40-year-old teetering on a parapet.

RB: Are there old characters you wrote when you were young that you think you got right? Who and how so?
I never return to read my own work. This is, I suppose, the literary equivalent of not looking in the bathroom mirror. I worked on all my novels until they were as good as I could make them. These days I experience my characters as they are reflected by my readers’ responses. Judging from the letters I get, I would say my characters are alive and working. Of course someone else might have written them better, but I doubt anyone else would have wished to write them at all.

RB: Do you think about dying? Have you come to terms with the fact of dying one day?
Our lives are, of course, defined by the fact that we will die and when we enter this stage of our lives this is no longer a distant possibility. As death comes closer, life becomes more intense and precious.

I have a very happy personal life. I go to sleep each night and wake up each morning feeling blessed. I want to live forever. The intense pleasure I feel in the present must be, at least. produced by this inescapable fact of death. It’s like looking at the gorgeous evanescent light in a Monet painting or wisteria blooming. It is the brevity of time that makes it so ecstatic.

RB: Do you believe in an afterlife? If so, what do imagine it to be?
Hard to imagine it except we’ll definitely be out of Iraq.

RB: What is one lesson you've learned in your years that you would like others to heed?
Don’t waste electricity. Turn off the lights.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Nancy Leitz tells of her personal visit to The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy.]

Dr. William H. Thomas – Part 2

[Dr. William H. Thomas - Part 1]

Thomas_bill_3smCategory_bug_interview Long-time readers of Time Goes By will be familiar with the name of geriatrician, William H. Thomas. I have quoted his book, “What are Old People For?”, extensively in these pages on a variety of topics about elderhood, and it has become a favorite reference for me in writing about aging.

Among many other activities and accomplishments, Dr. Thomas is a professor at the Erickson School of Aging Studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore Campus and he is the founder of the Eden Alternative, a program to de-institutionalize nursing homes throughout the world. (You can find out more about him and his work here.)

Most of all, Dr. Thomas is wise and understanding in the nature of elders and aging, a fierce advocate for elders, and now he has joined us online with his new blog, Changing Aging. It is listed permanently under Elderbloggers on the left sidebar and I hope you will stop by to leave him a welcome message and also make him a regular on your blog-reading rounds. We all have much to learn from Dr. Thomas.

It is a remarkable thing for a renowned physician who is as busy and involved as Dr. Thomas to take on a daily blog. And somehow, he also made time in his schedule to do this interview for Time Goes By, which we conducted by email. Today, Part 2. You can read Part 1 here.

RB: It is rarely mentioned, but one reason for the pervasiveness of ageism is that young people don’t want to be reminded that they too will get old one day and they will die. Old people are living examples of that. How an that be addressed?
WHT: The evidence shows that the stronger the relationships young people have with individual old people, the less likely they are to hold ageist biases. It's all about relationships.

RB: Do you see any progress being made against ageism?
WHT: I loved the Dove pro-aging spots when they ran. I thought they were a good first step.

RB: In your book, What Are Old People For?, you write: “Old age may be a time of loss and decline, but it is not only that. There is a countervailing and equally significant increase in th4e power of adaption.” Would you talk a little about that power in elders?
WHT: We human beings live a long time after our reproductive peak. This is no accident. Our species took the necessity of aging and, from that, refined the virtues of elderhood. Elders are an integral, biologically determined element of the human cultural fabric and it is time they understood this role and begin to play their part.

RB: In that same book, you say that old age is different from adulthood. I don’t think many people make that distinction; they see elders mostly as wrinkly adults. Would you explain some of the differences?
WHT: Here's the SAT question: Childhood is to Adulthood as Adulthood is to…

The answer is: Elderhood.

Elderhood is as rich, different and distinctive as any other part of the human life cycle. It has its own challenges and rewards and needs to be engaged on its own terms.

RB: There is a lot of talk these days about successful aging. Do you know what that is? Or what Unsuccessful aging is?
WHT: Unsuccessful aging is dying. Those who die young (even if they are good) miss out on the things that can be known only in the fullness of life. Those of us whom wake up in the morning do so one day older than we were the day before. That is successful aging.

RB: Having chosen a profession that immerses you in the lives of elders, how will that inform your old age when you get there, do you think?
WHT: I think that I am, in many ways, an elder in the making. I often look at a problem in my life and try to imagine what my elder self will think looking back at that moment decades hence. Most often my elder self tells me to cool off and not get so wound up. It's pretty good advice.

RB: You are “only” 48. What physical changes of aging have you run into so far? Do they disturb you?
WHT: I am happy and proud to be in my late forties. My hair is thinning and my beard is turning gray. I use reading glasses when ambient light is low. I go running three or four times a week and find that, when I run with my 16 year old son, he can motor up hills - just the way I used to but no longer can.

I also find that I want more time to think and find less pleasure in chaotic situations with lots of noise and uncertainty. I also find that I get more pleasure over a meal and a bottle of wine with my wife than I ever thought was possible.

RB: You are 48. How do you think life will be different for elders when you are 78 than it is now?
WHT: The main thing that will change is that in 30 years elders will spend vastly more time with people who are not their blood relatives. In the past, aging was a family affair. In the future, it will be a function of the community and the communities will, by and large, be of our own choosing. I am likely to grow old in an intentional community and am very unlikely to grow old in the care of members of my own family.

RB: What are the most important one or two things you have learned from elders?
WHT: 1. Wisdom lies in knowing what to overlook. 2. In the end, no one gets out alive and so, for the time we are here, it is all about relationships. Nothing else really matters.

RB: Like it or not, celebrities have a great deal of influence on public attitudes about getting old. What public figures do you think are good role models for aging?
WHT: I think Oprah has done some good here. She looks, dresses and acts like a proud woman of her own age.

I thought that Kevin Costner did a good turn in The Guardian. He looked his age (more or less) and played the part of a man who was able to confront and overcome his own attachment to youth.

RB: What are you teaching your children about aging and getting old?
WHT: I believe that this kind of teaching works best when it is offered on a "show, don't tell" basis. So I try to show them how I feel about my aging. They say, “Hey dad your beard is getting gray." I answer, "Thank you very much!" “Hey dad, you are going bald!" "I am a proud of that and will be proud of you when you start to go bald."

RB: If you could choose just one piece of advice to give people about getting old, what would it be?
WHT: Let go of youth. It is but a flower. To know old age is to dive deeply into the very roots of life. This is what is real, what is hidden from the young, what enriches and sustains us. Old age is not something that happens to us, it is who we are, embrace it - and be made whole.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Linda Davis tells us how just the silent presence of elders can soothe, in Grandparents in the Glass.]

Dr. William H. Thomas – Part 1

Thomas_bill_1smCategory_bug_interview Long-time readers of Time Goes By will be familiar with the name of geriatrician, William H. Thomas. I have quoted his book, “What are Old People For?”, extensively in these pages on a variety of topics about elderhood, and it has become a favored reference for me in writing about aging.

Among his other activities and accomplishments, Dr. Thomas is a professor at the Erickson School of Aging Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and he is the founder of the Eden Alternative, a program to de-institutionalize nursing homes throughout the world. (You can find out more about him and his work here.)

Most of all, Dr. Thomas is wise and understanding in the nature of elders and aging, a fierce advocate for elders, and now he has joined us online with his new blog, Changing Aging. It is listed permanently under Elderbloggers on the left sidebar and I hope you will stop by to leave him a welcome message and also make him a regular on your blog-reading rounds. We all have much to learn from Dr. Thomas.

It is a remarkable thing for a renowned physician who is as busy and involved as Dr. Thomas to take on a daily blog. And somehow, he also made time in his schedule to do this interview for Time Goes By, which we conducted last week by email. Part 2 will run tomorrow.

RONNI BENNETT: You have a unique simpatico with elders. Where does that come from?
DR. WILLIAM H. THOMAS: I grew up in Tioga County, in the Southern Tier of New York State just south of the Village of Nichols.

I was surrounded by older relatives since the day I was born and thought of my grandmother's house as an extension of my own. I think that the most important thing I learned was that older relatives were valuable and esteemed members of the extended family. In fact, they were the glue that held the family together.

RB: What did your parent teach you about getting old?
WHT: My parents were relatively young (by today's standards) when they had me, and I grew up being most familiar with the idea that my parents were just 20 years older than me. My Mom and Dad were 42 when I graduated from medical school. Even now, when I am in my late forties, they are in their late sixties and both active and working. My mom would always announce that the decade she was living in (40's, 50's, 60's) was the best ever and I tend to agree with her.

RB: Did you have elder friends as a kid?
WHT: Living in a small town I was always aware that people knew me, knew my family and knew where I was supposed and what I was and was not supposed to be. I remember returning home late one evening after being out partying with my friends. The next morning an older neighbor called my mom to ask if I was okay because "Billy got home pretty late last night." This wasn't controlling, it was concern and that kind of concern was all around me when I was a kid.

RB: How and when did you decide to become a geriatrician?
WHT: I backed into it. I had already concluded my formal medical education and figured I would spend my career working in emergency rooms. Then I took a part-time job in a nursing home and fell in love - with the people and the work.

Later I sat for the geriatrics exam and passed on my first try. I can say that NOTHING in my medical education encouraged me to see geriatrics as a noble and rewarding profession. You can see the consequences of this in the fact that the number of geriatricians in America is going down rather than up, as one might suppose.

RB: The opportunities to study cosmetic surgery in medical schools far outnumber those to study geriatrics. Was this a hindrance for you in medical school and after?
WHT: I have often wondered if it was my good fortune NOT to have found and embraced geriatrics earlier in my career. Instead of learning "how it is done", I was placed into a situation where I frequently had to think things out for myself.

I remember once being on the phone with a social worker discussing what we were supposed to be doing, "What is our work?" She got frustrated with me and kept saying, "We help people compensate for deficits associated with aging."

That answer felt wrong to me then and it feels wrong to me now. Luckily I have been given the opportunity to challenge that view of the world.

RB: The incidence of plastic surgery among boomers has zoomed upward in recent years. Not long ago, I saw a news story about home skin rejuvenation appliances and techniques that were previously the domain of physicians.
WHT: Let's be clear: youth and the facsimile of youth are two very different things. The Scots have a great phrase for this: "lamb dressed as mutton."

Because we live in a brutally ageist culture there will always be a market for things that help mutton dress as lamb but, in the end, mutton remains mutton. I do not think badly of anyone who seeks out and makes use of products and treatments that create a more youthful appearance. This activity is a perfectly rational response to a culture that punishes not only age, but even the appearance of age.

RB: What do you think are the cultural consequences of cosmetic surgery becoming routine?
WHT: Many people will be buried with strangely disfigured faces. I feel bad about that but I understand why it is happening.

RB: Some scientists think of aging as a disease. Many million in research dollars are being spent these days on extending longevity. Some even say that one day people will routinely live to be 200. Is this a good idea?
WHT: Not. Going. To. Happen. I won't get into the details of it but the fact is that the human organism has certain dimensions that will not change in less than evolutionary time. Think for a moment: what is the chance that people will grow to be 30 feet tall? Would a woman, ten yards tall, be healthy? Is this a good idea? We, as a species have a largely fixed lifespan, radical extensions of that lifespan would diminish our humanity. Aging is us.

RB: The number of geriatricians in the U.S. is shrinking every year just when the number of elders is increasing dramatically. Why is this, do you think?
WHT: Geriatrics requires advanced training and pays less than other specialties with less training. Do the math.

RB: Chad Boult, a professor of geriatrics at Johns Hopkins University, was asked a few months ago in a New Yorker piece, what can be done to ensure there are enough geriatricians for thye burgeoning elder population. “Nothing,” was his answer. Do you agree?
WHT: Sadly, I agree. Barn door open. Horse gone.

RB: What are the concerns in having non-geriatrician physicians treat elders’ medical needs?
WHT: Nothing if that person takes time to learn about the specific needs of elders. Family doctors, surgeons, and internists can all give quality geriatric medical care, if they know how.

RB: What’s an elder to do to be assured of good medical treatment?
WHT: The doctor no longer knows best. It is now a partnership between doctor and patient.

RB: We live in a profoundly ageist culture. How have you seen this affect elders in day-to-day life?
WHT: Newsweek recently ran a story on the "to gray or not to gray" hair color controversy. The article made it clear that something as minor and functionally insignificant as decreased hair pigmentation can lead to major changes in how people evaluate themselves and others. That is just the tip of the iceberg (which is white).

RB: Do you see a remedy for ageism? Will the aging of baby boomers make a positive difference?
WHT: The dominant vision of aging as a spectacle of decline must be overthrown. We need new stories and new heroes to tell them.

Dr. William H. Thomas - Part 2

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Nancy Leitz explains how it is that her husband, Roy Has a Friend in Heaven.]

Chuck Nyren on Advertising and Elders

Category_bug_interview We spend a lot of space on this blog discussing the impact of advertising on the perception of elders and that old people are mostly invisible in print ads and television commercials except for products to relieve pain and suffering.

Because advertisers’ job is to create as many sales as possible, it puzzles me that they ignore – and sometimes alienate – millions of older consumers. So I decided to ask an expert.

Chuck Nyren, founder of nyrenagency, is an award-winning advertising video producer, creative strategist, consultant, and copywriter focusing on the baby boomer market. He runs a lively blog at Advertising to Baby Boomers and the newly updated, revised version of his book, Advertising to Baby Boomers has just been released. Please make him welcome.

1. What do you think is the importance, if any, of the new Dove campaign featuring over-50 women? Is it an inroad? Will it lead to more elder models being used to advertise other kinds of products?
That’s the big question. I hope it’s a watershed campaign. I love it. We’ll have to wait and see. A few years ago I predicted that there would be a watershed campaign. Perhaps this will be it.

2. One of the things that ticks me off big time is advertisers and media writers who use the phrase “baby boomers” when they mean all older people. Some real-life headline examples [with my comments]:

  • New Electric Trike For Baby Boomers [Do they card you before purchase?]
  • Skin Care For Natural, Radiant Baby Boomers [Formulated to work only on people 43 to 61]
  • Baby Boomers Are Big Targets For Fraud [Everyone knows older people are too smart to be taken in by con men]

I am undoubtedly in the extreme, but I make a point of not buying brands that are advertised to baby boomers in this way. Here is what baffles me: why do corporations cut out 46 million people older than 60, either by name or with images, from their potential revenue pie?
Ronni, I try not to comment on the press – although I do every so often. I try to limit my observations and opinions to advertising and marketing.

Using the term “Baby Boomers” in news articles doesn’t bother me much (except that I’m getting sick of so many news stories lately). But using it in advertising (“Hey, Baby Boomers! Here’s the product for you!”) is pretty dumb. You don’t want to talk at people by defining who they are. This is insulting. Just tell me about the product, tell a story about it – and do this with the sensibility of the generation that you are targeting.

The problem is that in most cases the copywriters and creative folk are in their twenties and thirties. I talk about this in my book, on my blog, when I consult and speak.

And the reverse is true. You wouldn’t want someone 50 or 60 coming up with a campaign for people in their late teens/twenties. They would talk at’them. As I say in this blog post,

“It wouldn't be too bright to trust my gut to come up with a campaign for a product aimed at twentysomethings. My gut would tell me, ‘… Ummm ... ummm ... Wait! I got it! We get some twentysomething girl an' spike her hair an' give'er tattoos and a nose ring an' put an iPod on her head an’ bed some hip-hop music an' have her hold up the toothpaste! Yeah! They'll buy it! They'll buy it!’”

Cutting out people older than Baby Boomers: I’ll answer that in question 3.

3. There are 46 million people in the U.S. (one-sixth of the population) who are older than 60. Yet marketers and advertisers refuse to acknowledge that we exist except in commercials for pain and suffering remedies. There are no commercials for new cars, iPods or even laundry detergent that feature elders. Why?
It’s ageism. Something you write about almost everyday on your blog.

I get a bit queasy talking about ageism and racism as being too closely related. Racism was and is an issue that has affected and destroyed millions of people in this country since its founding. However, in the broadest senses of the terms – and in advertising – they are related.

Forty, 50, 100 years ago, the conventional wisdom was, “Why advertise to Negroes? They buy products anyway. And do we really want to associate our product with this group?” That’s what’s happening now with ageism and advertising.

4. Older baby boomers (let’s say 55-plus) have more in common with people my age (65) than with younger boomers in their forties, yet marketers lump all boomers together and ignore elders. How does this make sense in terms of targeting the right market for products?
I agree completely and I’ve written about this at greater length here.

I also agree that it doesn’t make much sense. However, even targeting people over forty is something new for advertising. Actually, most advertising was age-neutral before 1970, but since then the 18-34 demographic has ruled – and still does. It’s silly and shortsighted.

So my point is this: At the moment, just targeting anybody over forty is good news. Eventually, there will be more focused targeting. (Or at least I hope so.)

5. I’ve read that there are few creative types in ad agencies who are older than 40. If that is so, I think it has much to do with how off-kilter and tone-deaf advertising is when it does target older people. This must be reflected in fewer sales than would be so if they got it right. Hasn’t anyone thought of hiring some elders to point those “young ‘uns” in the right direction in regard to older consumers?
Ronni, this is my book. You’ve summed it up well.

Advertising agencies before 1970 or so had a good age mix. That’s what I preach about – bringing back a better age mix.

6. Ageism, which includes age discrimination in the workplace, is as serious a problem in the U.S. as racism and sexism, but hardly ever acknowledged as such. I read somewhere that Americans, on average, are subject to 5,000 marketing messages a day, many of which not only reinforce cultural ageism, but create it. What responsibility do you think corporations and their advertisers have in this regard?
I answered this with question 2. I’m not so sure it’s quite as serious as you do – but it’s serious. As far as responsibility, let me answer cavalierly: Forget responsibility. It’s just dumb business practice not to advertise and market general products and services to people over forty-five.

7. What do you think is the cultural impact of elders being absent from those 5,000 messages a day except for products to relieve pain and suffering?
This is one of the major themes of your blog, Ronni. I read it regularly. I also soak up the comments by your readers. I send people to your blog when they ask me about ageism. I agree with most of what you and your readers say on the subject, and don’t have much too add.

8. Do people you know in the world of marketing and advertising ever discuss targeting older people for products other than medical appliances, gastric remedies and painkillers?
That’s all we talk about. We’re evangelical about it. David Wolfe, Ken Dychtwald, Brent Green, Mary Furlong, Matt Thornhill, etc. If your readers are interested, Google these folks.

Whether the marketing and advertising movers and shakers are listening - that’s another story.

9. As you recently noted on your blog, baby boomers were the first generation to be marketed to in childhood. How does that make their demographic, from a marketing point of view, different for advertisers from people older than boomers?
Again, it’s how you define baby boomers. And at this point, I’m not sure that because we were marketed to as children has or will have any effect on marketing to us today or in the future.

As far as people over 70 (an arbitrary number on my part), I’m not an expert on that demographic. Most marketers and advertisers don’t care about baby boomers and they really don’t care about people over 70. That’ll change over the next 20 years as baby boomers turn 70. At least I hope it will.

10. I have a theory that marketers target baby boomers by name because they’ve got that cute name which other generations – younger and older – don’t have. Could they be this unthoughtful about what they are writing and presenting?
Again, it’s dumb to call baby boomers baby boomers in ads. The press calls them baby boomers, and when talking B2B (business-to-business), we use the term baby boomers. My book is titled, Advertising to Baby Boomers but it’s a business book.

11. In what situations would you recommend using older models and spokespersons to your clients?
I’m not wild about spokespersons. Older models? Absolutely. However, I think advertising to the 50-plus demographic is usually better off concentrating on the product. Often, you don’t need models of any age.

This link also helps to answer question 9. Make sure to read the comments attached to the above posting. I don’t agree with all the comments, but they’re interesting.

12. In using older models/spokes people, is there a difference in impact between choosing men or women? I'm thinking of a current TV commercial and print ads for TD Ameritrade with actor Sam Waterston. They've been going on a long time now, so they must be fruitful. Would using a similar type of woman of the same age be as successful?
I think so. However (and this won’t make you happy, Ronni), some research has shown that older women don’t respond favorably to older women alone in ads – at least ads for products other than cosmetics and whatnot. It seems to reinforce the fact that a huge chunk of women over a certain age are alone – divorced or widowed. However, this attitude is changing. That’s because women’s attitudes are changing. For more, read this blog post.

Hugh Downs - Part 2

Hugh DownsCategory_bug_interview Nobody ever forgets their first time, and I am proud that Hugh Downs, one of the most prolific and distinguished news reporters and anchors in the history of U.S. television, agreed to be the first of this new series, The TGB Interview.

I was a producer at 20/20 during some of the years Mr. Downs co-anchored that television news program. Although we never reported a story together, I knew him then to be a man of wide experience, knowledge and curiosity who was kind, always gracious - and wise. He still is.

Yesterday, he spoke about what growing older is really like for him, what has surprised him about it, how his life has changed as he ages and how it has not. Today, we continue...

RONNI BENNETT: In some of your speaking engagements, you talk of “successful aging.” Can you give an example or two of successful versus unsuccessful aging?

HUGH DOWNS: I think unsuccessful aging happens in two ways: bad luck, where a person has the misfortune to grow old without maturing (in the way a piece of fruit can start to rot without ripening) and/or develop the improper attitude that age is something to be regarded with dread, in which case it can become dreadful.

I have really come to embrace the idea that it is beautiful that young people get older and old people get older. This is the wheel of life and if you get hung up on the idea of staying young, you are doomed to disappointment. Accepting age and mortality is a much more comfortable way to fit into life.

RB: Ageism is a serious problem that diminishes old people in the eyes of everyone and contributes to the youth worship of our culture. What personal encounters have you had with ageism?

HD: The Pepsi Generation mentality and the accent on youth would be funny if they weren’t so sad. In answer to your question, I have had almost no encounters with ageism on a personal level. I am current as a pilot, and I have never been discriminated against, based on my age, in a way that thwarted anything I want to do.

Media RB: The frequently negative portrayal of old people in the movies and on television doesn’t help the cultural attitude toward aging and old people. Have you noticed any enlightenment in that area of the entertainment media?

HD: There’s very little enlightenment or progress in the way old people are depicted in media offerings. This is a mill that grinds exceeding slow. But I think it will show progress when we have begun to shift away from a consumer society to a service society. And this has to happen if we are to survive on the planet. But maybe not in my lifetime or the lifetime of my great grandson.

RB: Age discrimination in the workplace is the most pernicious aspect of ageism. Why do you think corporate America is so unwilling to employ older workers?

HD: There is tremendous waste of skill and wisdom in the refusal to give employment to older workers who want to work. Many factors contribute to this nonsense: younger workers can be had for less money. Older, more experienced people are not as easily dominated as the young, etc. And corporate America is not as concerned with fairness as it is with profits. This bottom line philosophy should be restrained by a countervailing social thrust toward more fairness - and this will require an improvement in our education systems.

RB: In April, you will be speaking at a national conference of business executives about recruiting and retaining older workers. What are the one or two most important things you will you tell them?

HD: I would hope to get across some success stories businesses have had in hiring older workers.

RB: It is almost impossible to prove age discrimination in court. Less than a third of such cases succeed. What, do you think, is the best way to ensure that older people are treated fairly in the workplace?

HD: A massive shift in attitudes toward aging is called for. We still tend to put decrepitude and impairment in the same basket with aging, and it should be the opposite.

The older a person is, the more of a triumph that person is against the forces that try to pull us down - in our cradles, in mid-life and in old age. We need to look at it that way, and then I think more fairness will arise automatically.

Workers RB: In this blog, I advocate strongly for mixed age workplaces. What is your experience in working with people much younger than you?

HD: America once had the ability to mix ages in work projects. When fiery young minds like Jefferson and Paine were forging the Declaration of Independence and things like the Federalist Papers, they showed a willingness to work with, and to learn from, a man over 80 at the time the Constitution was ratified - Ben Franklin. We sort of lost that in the ensuing decades, but I think it is coming back.

RB: You’ve led such a rich life with so many opportunities for adventure, study and knowledge. What stands out as memorable?

HD: Curiously, one of the most memorable things I can think of occurred in my twenties when I read about Stoicism. From it (the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and the Enchiridion of Epictetus) I found out, on a very personal and practical level, that it is not necessary to hate anyone (we only hate what we fear), and that in small steps it is possible to drop the burden of concern about things over which we have no control. This really pointed my life in a different direction.

RB: Walter Cronkite has famously wanted to travel to the moon. Do you have any such unfulfilled dreams?

HD Yes. I would like to go to the moon, but it is extreme unlikely that this will happen.

Several decades ago, I was the first to request going into space as a journalist. James Webb was NASA administrator at the time. I knew all this gang from broadcast segments, and each subsequent administrator had a letter reminding him of my request. This was before Cronkite requested it - that doesn’t mean I would have been chosen before Cronkite who was very good on space coverage.

There may one day be tourism to the moon, but unless I can stay in shape for another four or five decades, I won’t be going. Again, this is not a disappointment or frustration that in any way impinges on the quality of my life.

RB: You’ve been a news reporter and anchor, a game show host; you are an author, a composer and many other things too. What, if any, gives you the greater pleasure?

HD: My second greatest pleasure now, probably, is listening to music and studying the scores of great composers. I am increasingly fascinated by trying to plumb what motivated them - what led them to the kind of inspiration that resulted in a great symphony or piece of liturgical music.

RB: How have your pleasures changed over the years?

HD: I used to think of reading as the second most pleasurable. (The first, corny as it sounds, is love, in all its aspects and my good fortune in being married to a super girl.) But I read a little less voraciously and listen to more music.

RB: I didn't know you were a composer until I was researching this interview. What kind of music do you compose? What instrument(s) do you play? Would our readers know any of your work?

HD: I never really mastered an instrument. I studied violin as a very small boy (five) and displayed no particular talent. Later, a little piano and in my twenties studied classical guitar.

But I learned, when I was 13, how to write music by reading books on composition and orchestration, and I composed a musical setting to the Thirteenth Psalm, which sounded grand with a pipe organ and choir. (Probably not very good.)

Church In my twenties, I wrote some pieces, one for large orchestra - a prelude in the form of an elegy - which was published and is still performed by various orchestras. Then a piano piece in 1958, which is available on the Americus label, performed by John Bell Young (An Old Familiar Air Which Has Its Own Tuxedo and Will Travel).

It was a thrill for me to hear this played properly because I write above my ability to play. Then a few years ago I wrote the cello piece for Yo-Yo Ma, which he premiered with the St. Louis Symphony.

RB: Do you think about dying? Have you come to terms with the fact of dying one day?

HD: I have thought about dying since I was ten. These thoughts have evolved considerably and out of this speculation and much reading has come a theology of sorts.

Many religious people would conclude I am an atheist because I can’t accept dogma. I am not an atheist. I am somewhat in the position of Thomas Carlisle, who said, “There is one True Church, of which at present I am the only member.”

It may be a complicated thing to explain, but I have arrived at the conclusion that (a) the universe was brought into being by an uncreated creator and whatever you want to call this entity - Brahma, God, Allah, Jupiter, Zeus, Thor, Wotan or Aten - it is unavoidable.

Gratitude Dedicated atheists, who have been known to say such things as “The universe created itself,” are faced with simply giving God another name (the Universe). It falls back to the ultimate philosophic question: Why is there something instead of nothing?

And (b) This immense cosmic realm is not hostile to us. I often feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to be part of this enormous cosmos, and I feel I will be taken care of. Also I now believe there is no such thing as subjective death. From several different angles that do no violence to reason, I have formed a religion of sorts, and I am still pursuing the paths that some great thinkers - theologians, philosophers and scientists - often share. (I may one day write about this at length.)

RB: Do you believe in an afterlife? If so, what is it like?

HD: Yes, but in a way that cannot be explained in less than 20,000 words.

RB: What do you believe is the purpose of life?

HD: Finding a “purpose” of life is a little like answering the question, “What is the universe for?” (Or Dr. Thomas’s, “What are Old People For?”) I think you can have a purpose or purposes in your individual life, but what the purpose of life itself is, certainly transcends my ability to comment on it.

RB: Is the world better or worse off since you were young?

HD: The world is about the same. In the long haul there is probably progress. We have done away with human sacrifice, with the divine right of kings, with slavery, with some of the discrimination against women, and even with dueling - replacing it with lawsuits.

But this is a long haul and there are nasty setbacks - like Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin. And even today, cruelty and greed play a bigger part in human affairs than we would like.

Lesson RB: Whom do you admire in terms of how they have aged?

HD: I thought George Burns did a pretty good job of getting to 100. His humor, his reverence for the memory of his wife, and his general attitude were exemplary.

RB: What’s the best part of getting older? And the worst?

HD: The best part of getting older is the unending potential for increasing the knack of enjoying, of relishing, of reminiscing and loving that more than offsets the decline in physical strength, the curtailment of faculties and the necessity to face mortality.

The worst part is the sad social attitudes we have that result in making elders the target of discrimination and neglect.

RB: What is one lesson you have learned about getting older that you would like everyone to know and heed?

HD: The one lesson is that aging is, in itself, not bad. What we need to fight against is not aging, but injury, illness, loneliness and discrimination.

RB: What are your plans for the future?

HD: The future for me is to watch my great grandchildren grow, to write, to read, to enjoy music and art, to ride horses for as long as I can get aboard a horse, to fly my glider, to scuba dive, to travel, to lecture and to contemplate the web of life - of which I am privileged to be part.

A TGB Interview: Hugh Downs - Part 1

Hugh Downs - Part 1

Hugh DownsCategory_bug_interview Hugh Downs, whose professional career has spanned 60 years, is one of the most familiar figures in U.S. television.

He was born in 1921, and began his broadcast career at age 18 as a radio announcer in Lima, Ohio. He was the announcer on Caesar’s Hour, he helped launch The Tonight Show with Jack Paar in 1957, was the host of the game show Concentration, of the Today Show, and he co-hosted 20/20 for more than 20 years.

But that hardly scratches the surface. The numerous documentaries he has reported and anchored have won him many Emmys, most pertinently for this blog, in 1985, Growing Old in America. You can read more about Mr. Downs’ long and distinguished career here.

He is also a pilot, a published composer, a horseback rider, a well-known adventurer and the author of more than a dozen books - three of them on aging. His retirement, if you can call it that, has not slowed down Mr. Downs at all.

He lectures at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University, speaks frequently throughout the country on the subject of successful aging, is chair of the Board of Governors of the National Space Society, chair emeritus of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, chairs the Research and Education Committee of the Geriatrics Advisory Council of the Mount Sinai Medical Center and was recently appointed a commissioner of the Arizona Film Commission.

With his wife, Ruth, Mr. Downs lives in Paradise Valley, Arizona. They have two children, two grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and a third on the way.

Mr. Downs graciously agreed to inaugurate a new Time Goes By series, The TGB Interview, which we conducted by email.

RONNI BENNETT: When you were young, what did you think getting old would be like? How is it different from what you expected?

HUGH DOWNS: When I was young, I thought getting old would entail a lot of sorrow that I could no longer do things I thought were important to do. This proved to be false simply because of a change in what I thought was important to do.

Granted, there are things I don’t do because I couldn’t if I wanted to. But would you mourn, at age 15, the loss of something you could do at age two and can no longer do? When you are two you can sit down backward and stiff-legged on a cement floor. Anybody 15 or older would be sent to the hospital with back injuries if he tried this. Wouldn’t it be neurotic to moan about the loss of this ability?

Do I wish I could play football? Or abuse my system as I did in my early twenties with bad diet, smoking and drinking too much? No.

RB: Were you really born on Valentine’s Day?

HD: Yes. I'm told that the doctor present at my delivery urged my parents to name me Valentine and call me Val. I was so grateful to my parents for not doing this that I forgave them for giving me a first name that I thought they had made up. When I was in the second grade, another kid named Hugh enrolled and I thought, "Isn't it strange that they made up the same weird name for him?"

Abilitylove_1 RB: How are you most different from your youthful self?

HD: I am most different from my youthful days in being much more in control of my comfort and having a vastly increased capacity for the appreciation of everything. Esthetic experiences are much deeper, the intensity of interest in interesting things.

The ability to love has increased beyond anything I could have imagined. When you are young and in love, you love only up to the capacity you have. My wife Ruth said it best in an analogy she used when we did a joint lecture on marital longevity at Arizona State University: “Young love is like a blowtorch - very hot and dangerous if mishandled. You can be burned badly by it. Mature love is like a giant bonfire at which you can warm your life.”

RB: What’s the biggest surprise – positive or negative – you’ve encountered about getting older?

HD: The biggest surprise I found on getting to my mid-eighties is why I still feel like I am thirty-five. (Except for the fact that I am happier than when I was thirty-five.) This requires a good bit of luck, as well as careful habits. But if you run afoul of injury or disease, then it is not aging we are talking about.

I am fond of saying, “There is nothing wrong – ever - about getting older or being older. There is always something wrong with being injured or impaired or alone, sick, broke, or discriminated against.”

RB: What, if anything, do you miss about your youth?

HD: The things about my youth worth having, I still have. The other things - the uncertainties (the shrouded future at your arm), the fact you have aspirations instead of accomplishments, the failures in love, career, and imagination - these I can do without, even though they were part of the seasoning of youth.

Gettingolder RB: What of your beliefs have changed that you can attribute to getting older – and wiser?

HD: In my youth, I believed things about history – partly because I was implicitly taught this in school - that I had occasion to revise. Example: I believed that any people under a cruel monarch or a tyrannical dictator would simply rise up, mount a revolution, and establish a beautiful democracy.

Then I came to realize that it almost never happens that way. Only once, that I know of: the British colonists who defeated the forces of King George III and set up the United States did something virtually unique. In most other cases, the overthrow of an oppressive government results in the establishment of an equally tyrannical one. (The Russian czars, the ayatollahs of Iran, etc.)

RB: Do you have any age-related diseases or conditions? If so, how does it affect your daily life?

HD: “Age-related conditions” is a term widely used, even in the medical community, and I find it flawed. True, there are disorders and diseases one is more likely to run into in advanced age than in youth, but there is a fallacy in coupling impairment and decrepitude with aging.

I have come to believe that there is no disease or disorder that is age-specific. For instance: if all old people were deaf, or all deaf people were old, then you would have a disorder that is a true concomitant of age. But this is not the case. And it is not the case with anything, including Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. (I have interviewed more than half a dozen centenarians, whose minds are undamaged by injury or disease, and there are recorded cases of Jacob-Creutzfeld and Alzheimer’s in people in their forties.)

In answer to your question, I notice in recent years some changes that might be considered age-related. I have lost some muscle mass (don’t do as many pushups as in earlier years) and hearing tests show a decline in high frequencies. Sometimes if I’m not looking at someone’s lips I don’t distinguish between “fun” and “sun,” but I doubt I’ll need a hearing aid before I’m ninety.

And none of the 100-year-olds I interviewed were physically robust even though their mental condition was good. So you don’t plan to start a baseball career at age 45.

Disorders RB: Compare an average day today to an average day before you retired from 20/20 in 1999.

HD: The average day I had when I was under contract to a network (say for 20/20) was a lot more sensibly structured. I worked mostly on broadcast projects, had more time to take in movies and TV shows, and to read books at a faster rate than now.

Now, I have more irons in the fire than I probably should. Between university lectures and other speeches, keeping up my email correspondence, broadcast guest shots, board meetings (chair of the Board of Governors of the National Space Society, chair emeritus of U.S. Fund for UNICEF, being a commissioner on the Arizona Film Commission) trying to shoe-horn in some creative writing, discharging duties of being a founding member of MAN (Men’s Anti-violence Network), and trying to get enough sleep and exercise, my average day today is a lot more filled than I anticipated when I retired. (This is badly undercutting my goal of becoming the Playboy of the Western World.)

RB:You have written at least three books on aging and you serve on the boards of several important organizations that deal with aging. How did this become an issue you wanted to explore so deeply?

HD: I first become interested in aging when, at age 30, I was asked to host a prime time special on NBC Television. It was called How Long Can You Live, and was a geriatric medical special on the subject of human longevity - not life expectancy.

This so fascinated me that it planted a lifelong interest in the subject of aging. It was the beginning of my learning experience

RB: In a remarkable book titled What Are Old People For?, Dr. Michael H. Thomas, a geriatrician, writes: “Old age may be a time of loss and decline, but it is not only that. There is a countervailing and equally significant increase in the power of adaption.” What adaptions have you made to getting older?

HD: Dr. Thomas is a geriatrician worthy of the name. Since you ask about me and what adaptations I may have made to getting older, I must say that decline has not really bothered me. We decline, in a sense, from the moment we are conceived. (See answer to the first question.)

I do not ride motorcycles any more not because I can’t, but because I can easily trade this for activities I enjoy more. I don’t pursue girls anymore, because even if I could strive for “conquests” of this sort now, I have a girl and for 61 years that has been more important to me than the uncertainties and the vanity of the chase. So I haven’t really given up anything important. The opposite is the case.

Wheellife RB: Dr. Thomas, in refuting youth as the gold standard of life, also writes: “In fact, old age is different from adulthood, just as adulthood is different from childhood. Age changes us…could it be that an older person is something other than an adult in decline?” Can you, having recently turned 84, speak to some differences you’ve noticed between adulthood and old age?

HD: Now, at age 84, I realize that adulthood starts out as a mass of responsibilities and challenges, and one can be zestful to face these and address them energetically. But unless I had had the misfortune to fail at everything I was striving for, there is no excuse for me now to insist on prolonging the muscular pursuits of earlier adulthood.

I am still a member of the “young old” and will, in five years, join the “old old.” The differences in these ages have to include concern that I will encounter some injury or disorder that could impinge on the quality of my life. But again, we would then be talking about something other than aging.

RB: It is common for old people to say they don’t feel old and I think what they usually mean is they are not much different on the inside from when they were younger. Do you find that to be so?

HD: Yes.

The TGB Interview: Hugh Downs - Part 2