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MAGAZINE / Jul-Aug 2007 / The Hugh Downs Interview

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The Hugh Downs Interview

Today's Caregiver magazine Jul/Aug 2007 - Hugh Downs Interview

Hugh Downs is one of America’s most respected and honored television personalities. He began his extraordinary TV career in 1956 as an announcer on Sid Caesar’s Hour. After stints on The Tonight Show and The Today Show, he spent 21 years as co-host of the popular ABC news magazine 20/20 (1978-1999). The winner of six Emmy awards, Downs has been interested in aging since he produced his first television news story on the subject in 1951. In the 1970s he co-hosted Over Easy, a PBS program on aging. An avid sportsman, Downs is a pilot who holds a current medical rating, as well as several ratings from multi-engine to hot air balloon. Mr. Downs serves on the advisory committee of The Caregiving Project for Older Americans, a partnership between The International Longevity Center-USA (ILC) and the Schmieding Center for Senior Health and Education (SCSHE). The Caregiver Project for Older Americans will bring greater awareness of the caregiving crisis to the American public, and work toward solutions, including the development of a national systematic approach to recruiting, training and retaining paid professional caregivers; and by doing so, securing a well-prepared and dedicated generation of caregivers. Gary Barg caught up with Mr. Downs for a conversation on topics ranging from music composition to great grandchildren to Daniel Boone.

Gary Barg:
You are a member of the new advisory committee for the caregiving project of the ILC (International Longevity Center).  Could you tell me the goals of the project? 

Hugh Downs:   The goal of the ILC is to change the thinking of humans, particularly a lot of the Western society which is riddled with that “Pepsi generation” mentality  with the accent on youth, which really neglects and goes against older people just because they are older people; and this is still true to a large extent. I admire the ILC because it’s on top of all these goals and trends and is trying to lead the world toward enlightenment; not merely for humanitarian reasons and fairness, but for the sake of civilization. There’ve been cultures that have been wise enough to capture the wisdom of their elders, particularly in places such as Nepal where my son was for many years. When I went to visit him in there, the Nepalese have a custom that I thought was very interesting. We have euphemisms for “old” because “old” is supposed to be bad in our culture, so we invent words like “senior citizens” so that it will not be taken as an insult. In Nepal, the first thing they ask you when they meet you is, “How old are you?” and you answer with an apologetic response, “Well, I’m 50.” Their proper and polite response is, “Well don’t feel bad; you’re getting there.” It’s just the opposite of what we do, because we like to compliment someone by saying, “You don’t look that old.”

GB: I wanted to ask you about your book ”Letters to a Great-Grandson” because to me, that’s what caregiving is really about. You share your advice, your wisdom, with the generations coming after you, and you share advice about their decades yet to come. I also think as caregivers, we teach our kids everything by example, including how they watch us care for our elders.

HD: You’re absolutely right; that’s an interesting point. It helps them to grow up with the right attitude. This whole idea of how children are brought up and how they see what their parents and elders are doing makes an enormous difference because they tend to imitate. Like with abuse, which runs down chains of generations if it’s left unchecked. I think the opposite is true if a person has developed empathy and has an attitude of helpfulness to their fellow people; that’s going to rub off on children who are exposed to it.

GB: I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better comment on caregiving than a quote attributed to you, “A happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances, but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.”

HD: Isn’t that true? I’m sure we both have known people who had no physical problems, no pain, who were really unhappy, and yet I’ve known people who have had the most horrendous kinds of health difficulties but remain happy inside. So, it has to be a question of attitude. A favorite example of mine of how to look at things is a supposedly true story about Daniel Boone. When in his old age, he was being interviewed by a newspaper guy who asked him if he had ever been lost in the wilderness. Boone thought for a moment and then said, “No, I was never lost. Once I was uncertain of my position for four days, but I was never lost.” So, you’re not lost unless you think you’re lost. It’s really a matter of attitude.

GB:  It doesn’t matter what city we are in when we host the Fearless Caregiver Conferences across the country; one of the things that seems to be endemic to all of the events is that there will be people coming in with attitudes like “I’m handling this” and “I’m looking for information” and then there are some people coming in with a different attitude all together. It seems that the differentiator in what they get out of the day is always their attitude.

HD:  It really is. There’s a wonderful thing I ran across a few years ago. There were these three guys in a vast field and they were all moving heavy stones. The first guy the interviewer came to he asked what he was doing, and he said, “I’m toting rocks” and he was very unhappy. The second guy went about with a more business-like attitude and when he was asked what he was doing he said, “I’m putting up a wall.” The third guy was ecstatic and happy and energetic and when he was asked what he was doing, he answered, “I am building a cathedral.” Now, the big question is how do you engender that attitude? And how does a person escape from the drudgery of all the things that come without having a proper attitude? That’s a bigger problem.

GB: I really love the title to another one of your books, “Thirty Dirty Lies About Old Age.”  I know you wrote that in 1979, but what are some of those thirty dirty lies caregivers should know about today?

HD: A caregiver who is tactless could do a bad thing to people by exuding an attitude that is discouraging. You don’t need discouragement during any time in life, but particularly when you’ve accumulated a lot of years. When I was doing that PBS special on aging, I was really getting fed up with so much of the prejudice and what it promoted, like “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” which isn’t true, and that “You can’t do anything about growing old,” which may be true chronologically, but you can do something about your condition by modifying risks like quitting smoking or getting your diet under control. Another one that bothers me is that “The aged are past their prime.”  What is prime? Prime, in the form of wisdom, may not come for many, many decades, so this whole thing about aging and being past your prime is nonsense. Another misconception is that “All older people want to be young.” I don’t particularly want to be younger than what I am, but what I would like, and it is nonsense, is a 35-year-old body and an 86-year-old outlook on wisdom, but it’s not in the cards for anybody just yet. The other horrid attitude is that “Old age is an illness.” That’s an awful attitude to have because it’s just the opposite. Our culture tends to put old age in the same basket with decrepitude and impairment, and it’s just the opposite. The longer a person stays alive, the more of a triumph that person is over the forces that are constantly trying to do us in from the crib, through our prime, and into our old age. So, it’s just the opposite of being an illness or a disorder.

GB: I wish we could get the healthcare community to stop saying, “Oh, it is just old age.”

HD: Remember in Dr. Butler’s (the president and CEO of the ILC, as well as a Professor of Geriatrics and Adult Development at Mount Sinai Medical Center) book “Why Survive?” which is still one of the great books of all time, he had the example of the fellow who was 102 and went to the doctor because he had a bad pain in his right knee?  The doctor made some therapeutic recommendation, but ended the session as doctors often do by saying, “But don’t expect too much; after all, at your age …” and the older fellow interjected, “Doctor, my other knee is also 102, and it doesn’t hurt me.” I thought it was a great example of how one should think about that.

GB:  Is there one specific piece of advice you’d like to leave family caregivers with who are reading this?

HD:  My advice to them, if they want to be effective in what they are doing, is to exercise all their empathetic talents and feelings so that they really do care about the person that they are taking care of. Secondly, is to be sure that they never do anything that destroys hope.  Whatever the person’s need is that you’re taking care of, help them nurture hope. Above all, see to it that they have what they need for comfort, because the alleviation of suffering is everything; and as I said earlier, there are people who are suffering without a lot of physical pain, and then there are those who are tolerating considerable pain and are not suffering with it. The alleviation of suffering should be the whole goal of every doctor, every nurse, every psychiatrist, and every caregiver. Caregivers can help with this greatly, I think, because they are close to the people a lot of the time, and they can help sustain hope. 

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