Recently, ABILITY’s Chet Cooper, Lia Martirosyan and Nancy Villere met up with actress and activist Loni Anderson who talked about growing up with parents who smoked; the effects of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); and the difficult challenges that caregivers often face. And an exciting snowmobile ride down memory lane during Connie Stevens’ Jackson Hole Extravaganza with Quinton—Loni and Burt Reynolds son.
Chet Cooper: What are you up to these days?
Loni Anderson: November was packed: There was the Great American Smokeout, and it was also COPD Awareness Month and Caregiver Awareness Appreciation Month.
Cooper: And what happens in December?
Anderson: (laughs) Those issues are still relevant no matter what time of year it is. We’re always making people aware of the importance of caregivers and reminding them that they need to be appreciated. We are also spreading awareness of COPD. People hear about it, but they don’t know what it is. COPD is an umbrella term for chronic bronchitis all the way through end-stage emphysema. So it encompasses many stages of breathing difficulty. Ninety percent of cases are caused by smoking, and then there’s a small percentage, just a tiny fraction, caused by a genetic mutation. But also air pollution and second-hand smoke would be in that last 10 percent.
The reason I’m involved of course is because both of my parents were smokers. My mom started when she was 11, my dad when he was 14. That was back in the ’40s and ’50s when cigarette smoking was considered to be incredibly glamorous. Remember Bette Davis? People were lighting their cigarettes off one another, and it seemed so romantic and iconic, before we knew what smoking could do to you. My dad ended up as a four-pack-a-day smoker, and my mom lit one right after the other. My dad had developed chronic bronchitis by his late twenties that then moved into emphysema; he died at 54. My mother thought she had asthma, but it was really COPD, chronic bronchitis, and then she died just after turing 60. They were both debilitated over the years since my sister and I were teenagers. At that time, we didn’t even know what it was. Nobody called it COPD. Everybody said, “You have a cough. Do you want some antibiotics?” Nobody really understood what it was, and what it did to your lungs.
Cooper: Smoke and mirrors.
Anderson: Yes, that is the era we grew up in. We used to laugh about the fact and say, “We don’t need an alarm when it’s time to get up and go to school, ’cause Dad’ll be coughing.” It started out that he would cough maybe 15 minutes to clear his lungs before he got ready for work, and by the time we were in college it was an hour. He had to get up an hour early just to clear his lungs before he could start getting ready.
My mother was kind of a high-strung person. I was the older daughter, so my dad would confide in me. He didn’t want to worry my mom. He would tell me things that were happening with him. He said, “Today, I was walking down the street and I actually had to lean up against the building to catch my breath. And I thought, oh, please don’t let me pass out on the street. Somebody will think that I’m just inebriated.” He was embarrassed about the cough, because he said people thought he had an illness that he was going to spread to them, like “That isn’t very nice, that he actually came out when he had a cold and infected the rest of us.” So he felt like he needed to explain it, and he didn’t know how to explain it. It started to curtail all the wonderful things he loved to do.
Cooper: What kind of work did he do?
Anderson: He was a chemist and dealt with chemicals for water treatment. He was kind of an environmentalist way before his time, testing our water regularly. There were test tubes in our house. He was very afraid of what was going to happen to the environment. And yet he smoked constantly. Your doctor smoked. Everybody smoked. So he would say, “I think I’m going to give up the bowling league.” And it was out of embarrassment of being around the other guys, because he was losing the ability to catch his breath and continue on with his normal activities. That’s often what people with COPD do; they slowly stop doing things, not even noticing it. So a caregiver or a loved one starts to see what’s happening to them. “Dad doesn’t bowl any more.” He made it seem like it was cool to just take the golf cart around the course, as if “walking is so old-fashioned.”
He’d made a joke of it. He’d say, “You want to be my driver?” And then all the guys would ask, “How did you get that pretty girl to drive you around?” And stuff like that. It was how he dealt with being embarrassed in front of his friends. He felt like an old man, and he didn’t like it. Even after my daughter was born and came of age, she was his driver on the golf course, but certainly my mom did panic more about him. She worried more about his lack of activity. After he died, and her chronic bronchitis, emphysema, became worse with COPD, I’d get these panicked calls from her in the middle of the night. “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”
Cooper: That must have been so hard.
Anderson: Yes. And at that time it wasn’t like, “I’ll go get the other phone, you stay on the line with me.” Back then you had to hang up, call 911 and get rushed to the hospital. And she still wasn’t even diagnosed. Nobody had a website, nobody had a computer to go to and get help.
Cooper: Were you in college at the time? Where was she based?
Anderson: My parents lived in Minnesota, and I was there with them. Then, when she got ill, I was living in LA, and she had moved to Arizona. Eventually, she moved to LA to be near me, so at least I could keep an eye on her.
Cooper: She moved to Arizona because of her health?
Anderson: Arizona was where my sister lived, but she was married with children and had her own health issues at the time. Sometimes it falls to one family member to be the caregiver. What we’re talking about now is that the caregiver can’t be afraid or embarrassed to reach out and ask for help from a friend or relative, somebody else who loves that person, and say, “Just help me for two days or an hour.” I used to go to the basement and have a little freak-out where I’d just cry, because I felt so—like I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to help, and I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I felt so sad, then I’d come back up, and I was the cheerleader again, because as a caregiver that’s what you are. And then your tendency is to say, “Let me do that for you. I’ll take care of it. You just sit down.”
With our COPDTogether website everybody can go there and get help as a caregiver. There’s a brochure on the website and a little diary so you can keep track of your loved one, and learn how they’re changing in ways that you might not even notice. So when you visit the doctor, because everybody’s nervous about going to the doctor, you need a second set of ears, and you need a little handwritten diary where you can see, “This is what’s happening. Last week this happened.” All the things that the person might forget to say because they’re so nervous being a patient. If I had had all those tools at my disposal, I would have found it helpful. And just to have people to talk to.
Anderson: The more you exercise your muscles and your lungs by remaining active, the more lung power you have. So by just being sedentary, sitting on the sofa and not doing anything, you’re really defeating the lung capacity you have left. If somebody says, “I just can’t wash the dishes,” you say, “You know what? If you just stood here maybe and chopped the vegetables,” so at least they feel that they’re still involved. I think that was the worst thing for my dad, to feel that he was superfluous and didn’t have a place in anybody’s life anymore because he couldn’t do anything.
It’s also important not be too afraid or too embarrassed to take the medications. Dr. Dennis Doherty has said that with the nebulizer, puffers, and all those things that help you breathe as the disease is progressing, you can actually get back some lung capacity and have a better quality of life. Unfortunately, these things were not available to my parents.
Cooper: This morning I was in an elevator and this older person was outside, running up to catch the elevator, and as I let it close, I said, “Take the stairs.”
Anderson: You were a bad boy! (laughs) I know you are.
Cooper: But even though it was a joke, there’s a bit of truth there. Let people do some exercise.
Anderson: Have them do a little bit more for themselves, or share an activity, where the caregiver might say, “Let’s do this together.” Be supportive, not just say, “You go sit on the sofa, and I’ll do this.” But also recognize when a disease is getting worse, and that you have to do something more. Your patient is depressed. The caregiver gets depressed, because they can’t make it better. It’s not a reversible disease, but only slightly. You can’t get rid of it. It’s there. But any time you stop smoking, as we know, you stop the loss of your lung capacity from where you stopped. Even though it’s less than somebody who maybe never smoked, your loss of lung capacity is now progressing at the same rate as you age.
Cooper: Do you have, say, five tips for caring for the caregiver?
Anderson: You have to take care of yourself. My biggest tip is, you can’t take care of somebody else unless you take care of yourself. That’s where you have to call in a friend or a neighbor or your sister or your brother or your mom or your dad, whomever is around to help you, and just say, “Can you come and be with our loved one while I take a break?” Go to the movies, go to the spa. Get your makeup done at Bloomingdale’s. Whatever helps you to just have a moment so that you can come back refreshed. You realize with people who need care, it affects the whole family. You miss days of work. It just trickles on down, so you do need to call in loved ones to help.
Cooper: That’s one.
Anderson: Wasn’t that all of it? Go to the website, get help and join a group of other caregivers, so that you can all talk about what you’re going through and feel like you’re not alone. A lot of times the caregiver feels like, “I can’t complain, I can’t say anything, because look at the poor person I’m taking care of. They’re the one with the illness.” But you’re also affected by it, so you might need the support of a group.
Cooper: That’s two. The third is—and you do this already—exercise.
Anderson: Absolutely. Definitely taking care of yourself. Exercising, eating right and getting enough sleep. As a caregiver that is so incredibly important. Here’s another wonderful tip: laughter. Laughing expands your lungs. It’s an incredible exercise. A lot of people go to a funny movie or they go to a support group of other people who have COPD, and everybody gets a comic in. They watch a funny movie and they laugh because it’s an incredible exercise. Keep laughing.
Cooper: Say something funny.
Anderson: (laughs) Any time you laugh you expand your life, because it releases a lot of wonderful endorphins. If you’re depressed, it also makes you feel better.
Cooper: That’s always the trick. When you’re feeling depressed, how do you get that laughter to come out?
Anderson: Just take a step away from yourself for a minute. That’s where entertainment is so valuable, I think. You just take a moment. We all know that if you go to a movie, for just those two hours, you’re not in your life. You’re in the world of the movie. So taking your mind off your difficulties is so good.
Cooper: Nancy and I carpooled. I said, “Nancy, I’m feeling a little depressed.” She turns on her radio and it’s programmed to the comedy station. She keeps—
Anderson: So you’re already doing it.
Nancy: Yes, every time I’m in the car I listen to comedy stations on Sirius radio.
Anderson: It’s so healthy. She’s going to live a long time. (laughter) And, of course, I married a really funny person. When I met my husband, I said, “He’s better than TV.”
Cooper: But he’s harder to turn off.
Anderson: (laughs) You have to surround yourself with cheerful people. The other thing is smiling. A lot of times when we’re depressed, if you just smile, somebody will usually smile back at you, and that just helps you feel better.
Cooper: Lia’s signature on her email is “Music & Laughter.”
Anderson: Music. All of those things that are joyous to you. (laughs) So sing!
Cooper: Yes, sing.
Lia Martirosyan: So a nun, a frog and a priest walk into a bar…
Cooper: Are you doing a tour to get the message out?
Anderson: We’ve just begun this whole campaign with Sunovion Pharmaceuticals, because we wanted to raise awareness and get the message out. We have to appreciate our caregivers. And COPD is the only one of the top five killer diseases that’s growing. Everything else is going down. Although there’s still a huge population of smokers.
Cooper: Are we talking about global numbers or US numbers?
Anderson: We’re talking about the US.
Cooper: I can understand global, because the tobacco companies pushed real hard to market outside the States, where there are fewer restrictions.
Anderson: But even US numbers. And women are more susceptible, because their lungs are smaller, and there’s something different in our genetic makeup. So COPD is rising more in women. Before it used to be thought of as just a man’s disease.
Cooper: Didn’t men smoke more than woman at one time?
Anderson: Yes. And then, we all got liberated in the ’60s and one of the things we did was start to smoke.
Cooper: And burn your bras! That was a smoke joke, burning.
Anderson: Smoke your bra.
Cooper: On a personal note, have you done any more snowmobiling?
Anderson: I actually have done a lot since I last saw you.
Cooper: OK, then I’m mad at you. We were supposed to go together.
Anderson: We were supposed to go together, but my daughter was living in Mount Shasta, and so at Christmastime we would go snowmobiling. Now they’ve moved to Redding, so we have to drive all the way to Mount Shasta, which isn’t too bad, to do our snowmobiling. And I have yet to take my husband.
Cooper: We need to get together and do this.
Anderson: Absolutely do this. We said that after we did our snowmobiling adventure—
Cooper: And about that adventure, I don’t know how you remember it, but this is how I remember it.
Anderson: OK, you tell it.
Cooper: As you know, we were having fun hanging back and going fast.
Anderson: Right, we went on a little tour together with all kinds of snowmobiles and a leader.
Cooper: So as we’re going up the tour, do you remember Dr. Gillian Friedman?
Cooper: So Gillian, who’s our managing editor, was videotaping it. That was the basic problem. I’m driving the snowmobile, so as we’re going up this little hill—
Anderson: A pretty steep hill, as I recall.
Anderson: And it was a trail, but soft snow and a lot of it.
Cooper: When I say “little,” I mean we were by the edge of a cliff. You know that I ride motorcycles, so I felt like I should’ve known what I was doing, but for some reason I was losing my steering and all of a sudden I go off the side of the hill—
Anderson: And she was on the back of the snowmobile.
Cooper: It was all Gillian’s fault. (laughs) She had turned her body all the way around and forgot that there was a little bit of balance that was needed, so the vehicle was leaning toward that side, so we went off the path and flipped into the snow, she was videotaping, and the first thing you hear from her is, “Sorry.”
Anderson: But you guys were under the snow!
Cooper: Yeah! I asked, “Are you OK?” You can see the video goes completely white.
Anderson: Because you were buried. And Kenny Rankin was behind you, Quinton was behind you, and I was behind Quinton.
Cooper: Yes. And I hear a scream after Kenny jumps off.
Anderson: Well, he jumped off and unfortunately didn’t realize that was a drop-off,