Attitude Toward Aging with Marsha Hunt

Last Editorial Review: 10/23/2003

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Marsha Hunt, star of stage and screen and a social activist, will discuss attitudes towards aging and how they can affect your personal health.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live. Today we are discussing Attitude Toward Aging, with Marsha Hunt.

In Hollywood's "Golden Age" of motion pictures, Marsha Hunt was first signed by Paramount Pictures at 17, and within days, was cast in romantic leading roles opposite the likes of John Wayne. Her film career covers some 62 motion pictures, such as Pride and Prejudice, Blossoms in the Dust, Panama Hattie, The Human Comedy, Thousands Cheer, A Letter for Evie, Music for Millions, The Valley of Decision, None Shall Escape, Smash Up, Carnegie Hall, and Blue Denim. Starting in the 1950s, Miss Hunt has been a Trustee/Board Member of numerous charities and foundations, devoting herself to concerns such as peace, population, poverty and pollution. Twenty-five years went to advocacy of the United Nations, giving hundreds of talks on its Specialized Agencies, and producing programs involving the talents of Bing Crosby, Paul Newman, David Niven, and Harry Belafonte. Miss Hunt founded the Valley Mayors' Fund for the Homeless. She remains active in local and global affairs.

Moderator: Marsha, welcome to WebMD Live.

Moderator: Why do people have such negative views on aging?

Hunt: I wish I knew; it seems such a waste of energy and time. When we get into our upper years, it means there isn't that much time left. Now is the time to do what matters to us, and to make use of what we can. Most of us have more time towards the end of our lifespan, and it seems to me, that by our senior years, we should have figured out what we would most like to do with our lives, once we have the time to do it. It would be so smart to prepare for that, and set the stage, so that we can really accomplish and explore what it is that we always wished to do, and not let old trivial things get in the way of it. Really, maybe budget the days so we can be sure to turn that energy and interest into whatever it may be, and then it's such a rewarding experience, and something we put off in the busy years of raising a family, earning a living... now is the rewarding, golden age. I really do find these years Golden.

Moderator: Do you sometimes have to look at your drivers license to actually believe that you've lived this long?

Hunt: Yeah. Age baffles me; I don't know why people are embarrassed or even ashamed by whatever number of years they've wrapped up. What age is, is one thing that is nobody's fault. It's a fact of the accumulated time we've been around, and what it says is that "I'm still here." Look at what I've survived, and I'm still around. It's a time of triumph, and it's an accumulation that I think should be celebrated.

Spassmachen_WebMD: I wonder if there is life after work. How does one keep busy after retirement?

Hunt: That's pretty much what I was talking about a moment ago -- if one has been tied to work and self-support or family... all those earlier years, there must have been things that we wished we had time to do, or to find out about. Now is the time. It's perfectly true that as we get a lot older, certain things shut down, or stiffen up, or fail us. My eyes and ears are not what they used to be, and I'm having to adjust to that. It seems to me, that we can explore... if we should be even shut-ins and not be able to get out and around, there are such things to do at home, that there was never time to be home before! In the arts, music... a lot of people sit at their television sets and watch whatever waves over them. TV can be rewarding, but it isn't always. It isn't involving us, or using ourselves... but how about taking up a musical instrument for the first time? Or sketching, painting, or needlework? Anything that uses our own imagination, creativity... and something else occurred to me - I think there is a value in handing down some sort of record of our own life, and while it may not be thrilling or terribly romantic... there are still high points in our lives that our families, if no one else, would be interested in finding out about. Why did we do certain things? Or fail to do them? that maybe affected other people or our own lives. If people with computers could just sit down and type out into their computer the things they want to explain or recall, that might be useful to their families and children... or if they're not good at typing or don't see well enough, there's always the tape recorder. Talk into it as if you were talking to a friend, and recall things. I did a book called The Way We Wore that was a record of the 30s and 40s, and the clothing... and once I started recalling that time half a century ago, it's an amazing thing. It's like pulling the cork from a bottle, and out fizzles all kinds of memories and things you hadn't thought of. If people start recalling the high points or the decision points of their lives, that'll all start coming back and they can make a very vivid report of it. That's work worth handing down -- we're getting more interested in our roots, and the people who have gone before. And why not do that, if nothing else? I have a friend who has been in a wheelchair all her adult life, and it has not stopped her. She's amazing -- a travel agent and has gone all over the world, even if she had to be carried on a stretcher, even to see the Himalaya mountains. She's a great cook, and she has fashioned her kitchen so she can reach everything from the wheelchair, and she gets great meals together. There's very little out of reach for us if we just use our heads and get inventive, and that wonderful song of Johnny Mercer's "Accentuate the Positive and Eliminate the Negative,"  and it makes everything a lot more fun.

Moderator: Now that you have the opportunity to do whatever you want to do, what are you involved in on a day-to-day basis that keeps you young?

Hunt: I'm a bad example; I can preach better than I practice. I have all kinds of things I want to be doing -- I write songs, and I've written about 50, both words and music. I long for the free time to do some more, because it's a very rewarding, stimulating kind of thing to be doing. I have some more writing to do; all kinds of it. I'm overwhelmed with "the kitchen of life", or the things that are inescapable; the duties, chores, my mail is a handful of stuff to be grappled with day by day. I'm hearing from a lot of the public, and that's rewarding and heartwarming, for people to remember all those movies or stage performances, and a lot of young people are finding out about the movies from so long ago that they watch on cable. They want answers to questions, advice, or for me to sign pictures or trading cards. I'm getting a lovely response to my book, by people reminded of that age or are interested in it. It takes response, and it eats up my day. I'm slowed down because I have macular degeneration -- I'm beginning to look into what can be done about it, but I have blind spots. Everything is slowed down, and I don't get nearly as much done each day as I want to. I have so much memorabilia collected around my home from a very full life, and I need to sort it, file it, throw things away... while this is confessional, I might as well admit, I don't know how to throw things away. The squirrel impulse to just hang on! Because you never know when you might want it! I have to be ruthless going through and filing things. Then of course, there's the garden. I have a beautiful rose garden, and when things pile up on me, head for the garden and everything calms down and gets beautiful again. There's a lot I'd like to do; I want to spend more time with my friends than I seem to have. I've done a great deal of travel, but there's a great deal of the world I haven't seen, and I dream of being able to do that. So maybe in time, when I get disciplined enough, I can do that.

Moderator: Tell us about the Valley Mayor's Fund for the Homeless. What kind of work does this organization do?

Hunt: It's something I started 17 years ago, when Sherman Oaks appointed me honorary mayor -- it's honorary, because we're all part of Los Angeles. I wanted to put the title to some use, rather than just enjoy it. Right around that time, we were learning there were homeless people in the San Fernando Valley, which was amazing because it was a new area that developed after WW2; yet, there were people here turning up in great numbers, who were without any home. So I rounded up all the other honorary mayors that the 3 elected mayors, that of Los Angeles, Burbank, and San Fernando... and we all kind of co-founded the Valley Mayor's Fund for the Homeless. Over the years, we've done quite a bit -- we called attention to the plight of the homeless, and explain how people do become homeless. How they're not the enemy of wrongdoers, but they're victims of the economy. And how they needed to get out of homelessness and onto their feet, but in the meantime, did need shelter and counseling. While we were not equipped to do all those things, we helped organize a number of facilities and shelters in the Valley that have accomplished those things -- then we raised money to help keep those services going. Maybe one place needs a new roof, or can't meet its phone bill -- we fill in where the gaps occur, and we also provide blankets. First few years, it was real blankets, then found it was too heavy for people to lug around. But then we found Mylar, a substance that reflects body heat, wrap yourself in it and keep warm in the coldest weather, and also has a hood. It can be a poncho or a tent, or a blanket. We provided so many thousands of those every winter to homeless people, and we also put out an information card that lists all kinds of services with a phone number of where to call for that kind of service. That includes addiction to drugs or the alcohol, and counseling, and food, shelter, all kinds of referral services. And I guess we've given out a few hundred thousands of those cards; they can fit in anybody's pocket, and the police department uses them and hands them out when they see homeless people, and we leave them in public libraries, junk food corners, places in the park where homeless people are apt to congregate. It's ongoing, and we're not a big outfit; we're entirely volunteer. We don't even pay rent for an office, and all the money we raise goes into the program. We're proud of ourselves, but we're not big or powerful.

Moderator: You worked with the United Nations, giving talks on its Specialized Projects. What was that like? Did it involve travel?

Hunt: It followed travel; I went around the world with my husband in 1955, following a play engagement in Australia. I haven't been the same since; once you circle the globe, and you smell and taste and see and hear all the delicious flavors of the many kinds of people there are, you fall in love with the planet and all its people. I wanted to learn more, and the obvious source of that learning, was the United Nations, which I was totally ignorant about. I had been so busy making movies; I had been shut into sound stages, learning lines, performing, putting on makeup... and then I had time to really explore it, and I became an avid student of the U.N. I quickly found that everyone else around me was as ignorant as I was, and we had better know about this -- one entity trying to knit the human race into a cooperative bunch of governments, so we can get some peace and progress, and even survival while we're spoiling our environment. It's been a fascinating pursuit, and quickly found I was less interested in the political machinations which abound; the U.N. is made up of governments representing, and they compete with each other. What fascinated me was not the political, but the specialization of all the aspects of the human condition and effort and aspiration. The 30-some different specialized agencies of the U.N. which make up the greatest part of the United Nation, concerned with the basics of food and agriculture, world health, education, science, culture, children, environment, population, and then all the technical things like civil aviation and the Postal Union, weather, it goes on and on; every aspect that affects all of us, is attended to with great focus by one particular specialized agency. What they do is bring together the discoveries and progress, problems, of all the member nations and see what can be done about it. The World Health Organization has gotten rid of small pox, and almost malaria except the last of mosquitoes developed an immunity to DDT within just inches of all the last malaria-bearing mosquitoes. The progress that has been made that most people don't hear about -- I have a big quarrel to my country's media. They only pay attention to the UN with a confrontation, or a terrible flare-up and need of peacemakers. The progress, the wonderful things that are going on with these agencies -- that needs telling, and that's what I did for about 25 years. I gave talks, wrote programs, and then the documentaries called "A Call From The Stars." It was about world refugees, and on television, and then was shown in schools, libraries, and so on. What I did was to get 14 top actors, I think you mentioned some of them, and each told a different aspect of the refugee situation worldwide, because 15 years after WW2 ended, there was still 25 million people who were stateless and floating around the planet without no rights, travel papers, no work permits, or permission to exist. So the UN declared it World Refugee Year to embarrass the governments of the world for each to take their fair share of refugees and give them new roots to sink into; new homes and start building their lives again. It was a very exciting pursuit; that was 40 years ago in 1960.

chartres_WebMD: How has the attitude toward aging changed in the Hollywood system over the past 20 to 30 years?

Hunt: I'm not qualified to speak about the Hollywood attitude, because I've been inactive on the big screen for a number of years. My impression, because I live here in the general area, but I'm not "of it" any more, it seems to me that it's worse than ever, and that the youth culture, and the worship of it, is almost out of control. I'm not quite sure what's so great about youth... and it's nice to have smooth skin and vitality, but we don't know much yet, and we're not fully formed, and that takes place the longer we live. The film industry seems to have been taken over, ever since the end of the major studio period like MGM or Warner's, and since then, it's been divided and separated, without a continuity of careers, and it's been taken over by conglomerates, big corporate complexes, where that studio is one of many corporations, and all they know or care about is the bottom line -- the profit. They know you never lose money with bad taste -- sex, violence, vulgarity... people will always pay for that. So they concentrate on that, and I think they've set an ugly example for movie-goers. I get mail from people who miss the well-made stories; the thing about constructive lives, or tender relationships, rather than the decadence, sick, violence... the ugliness has almost taken over the screen, and when we get the exception, the public forks to it, and I don't know why that doesn't teach the people who make movies more. Older actors with a lifetime of experience and skill to build on, and fans who love them and their work, are sitting around and not acting. Nobody is calling them. The production of films has been taken over by young people, hot out of film school... and they don't recognize the past. They only know today and are planning tomorrow. It's too bad -- the attitude towards older actors and characters in stories, needs a lot more attention.

webmdadmin1_WebMD: Do you make vigorous exercise a part of your daily routine?

Hunt: Not very vigorous -- I don't know the value of working up a sweat, and making your heart pound wildly, unless you want to lose weight. I've never weighed enough, so I don't enjoy violent exercise, but I do, every morning, kind of a limbering up bunch of things that I have invented to just keep all the moving parts moving, and make sure I'm flexible and can get around easily, if I have to bend over for something. I can still touch my toes with my legs straight, but it's only by doing these easy things that twist and bend and reach... I enjoy it, and I listen to the news when I do it each day, so I'm tuned up for the day. So it's not all that vigorous, but it does wake up the body.

chartres_WebMD: I think it's great that you are doing an online event. What is your opinion of the computer age? How has it affected the aging population, if at all?

Hunt: Goodness, I'm not profound enough to know that. I suppose it's commensurate to how many of us in our senior years have mastered computers -- they're intimidating. In my own case, I no longer see well enough to read the screen, so I'm unable to use the computer. But I'm blessed with a wonderful friend, self-taught, and she's in her upper years (12 years my junior... and I'm 82)... she is getting very good at the computer, and so we have email zinging back and forth. It's marvelous, that somebody in Australia wanted to order some books, and we had an exchange back and forth... 3 or 4 weeks in one day... we accomplished weeks of letters in one day. My goodness, it's exciting. For those able to see the screen and do the typing, and understand the mouse and all this new language that is baffling to me, then blessed all. It has a great unifying effect. I get email from far places, and it's just wonderful! So I think then, and I don't know to what extent, older people are using it... but if they can, I hope they will. Everything is possible through a computer; from self-enlightenment, to meeting people. There's just no end to it. But it's also scary, because as I gather, there's no one in charge... and I think sooner or later, there's going to have to be, just as we all need governments... someone in charge to regulate and make sure crime doesn't run rampant. The scams now being sold over the Internet, are disgraceful. There's nobody to say you can't do that, or a penalty if you do. There are no rules. It's up for grabs... but it's very young, but just as a busy city needs traffic signals, eventually the computer world is going to need a few rules to keep it working in a healthy way.

Moderator: One of the most difficult parts of aging for me was the death of my husband. How did you cope with this loss?

Hunt: I had an extraordinary, marvelous husband... we had 40 years that was pure joy and privilege for both of us. When my Robert died, it was, I think, in his case... at the right time for him. He was losing his sight, and had a heart condition that robbed him of the energy that was so natural for him. He was an athletic, wonderful man. His heart was beating out of rhythm... and that's exhausting. He was coping with that the last 50 years of his life. He was no longer able to write, or to read, and that robbed him of being a brilliant screenwriter and novelist. So I think Robert could not have coped with helplessness, and the blindness coming on would have rendered him helpless. So he took his leave before he was an invalid, and if I made use of that knowledge, and was grateful for his sake, that he was spared the wheelchair, hospital, pain or helplessness.. then I can be grateful that it happened for him. It was a terrible loss for me, but I was determined, that while I would always miss him, that I would not mourn his passing because it was the right time for him. There are always the accidents and terrible tragedies of what's unexpected, but it did help me -- when my father died, that was also an unexpected death... but the great consolation that really sustained the rest of the family was the knowledge was that his eyes went to help some stranger to be able to see. I have that little card, that I carry with my driver's license... but it's in my wallet, that says that any useful parts of me, I leave and I will to anyone who can be helped by them. I think there's a consolation to that, that the fact that the part of one life, will enrich someone else's life. That brings great comfort. In the case of being widowed, it's that we shouldn't feel entirely cut off by the physical absence of someone -- if we recognize that what we had and shared as a couple, still is there... we're nourished, and the memories of the good times... are facts within our own present existence. They formed what we are today, and we can use that. I talk to Robert without any nonsense of thinking that he can hear me or that he's having a second life... but it's such a habit to have a comment now and then. Nothing spooky or spiritual, it's just that it's more fun that way. I love expressions that we had together that were our own secret language, and many couples have that. I continue that, and I can laugh when I think of Robert far more often now than I would want to cry.

chartres_WebMD: Did you help your husband write toward the end? One of my favorite authors is John Fante, who also went blind, and his wife typed for him when he could not anymore ...

Hunt: No, I didn't. He never asked me to, and he typed like the wind, faster than the keys would handle. He never did, and I think the flow from his mind onto paper, where he could see it, was a necessary process for him. I tried and failed to interest him in computers, and we went together to look at the larger print that some computers could provide, and I think he was afraid that once we had gotten the computers, that his eyes would deteriorate that much more, and he might not be able to make use of it. Alas, he just stopped writing. And I tried coaxing him to talk into a microphone, which then could be typed up. But no, bless his heart, he had his way of working, and when he couldn't work that way anymore, he stopped. I'm sad to say it was a beautiful talent.

Moderator: My wife passed away two years ago, and I've met a woman in my Senior's group whom I'd like to date. But she's afraid of what the neighbors will think. She's very traditional. How can I get her to consider going out for a couple of dates?

Hunt: Oh goodness. What the neighbors will think is one of the most crippling worries I know. There are defenses to be made for some traditions, and there are others very short-sighted, that deny others what should be their right. If she enjoys him, and likes to spend time with him, I hope she'll do it and understand that the time is going by awfully fast. I don't know if the audience is aware that the older we get, the faster the time goes by, and the days are shrinking at an alarming rate. The days are shorter and so use the time -- enjoy it, and the neighbors for all she knows may cheer the fact that she's finding a more rewarding way to spend her time. It couldn't matter less, it seems to me, what neighbors think. What one thinks of oneself is important, so I hope she will be with him, and I wish him more joy.

Moderator: What is the single most important thing to remember as you grow older?

Hunt: I don't have a single, most important thing to cite, but I suppose to make peace with oneself, and accept what can't be changed. For instance, we do stiffen up, and there are things that don't work as well as they used to. Accept what can't be changed, and to improve what can be. Have more fun; it's important to make more younger friends, because it's saddening to see our contemporaries dying. And some are dropping like flies. And of course, I'll miss them, but we need in some protection to cultivate younger friends. They needn't be very young, but just people who are not as far along in life as we are, so there are people we can enjoy and spend time with. We need not be bracketed in age groups; the more we mingle, the better it'll be for us. If we make friends with ourselves, accept who we are and what we are, and enjoy some serenity. That's a rare thing, and it's hard to come by that in younger years. But oh goodness, the reflection... the enjoyment of the sunset, gardening... these things are so rewarding. And we can find those. Even just one friend can fill a life that's lonely. Find what it is to bring comfort and serenity, and share these things.

Moderator: Do you miss acting? Are you currently involved in any acting projects?

Hunt: I'm not sure whether I miss it, because I've been able to fill my life with so many other things. I thought for years, in my youth, that's all I wanted to do... and I'm extremely talented, I was given so many talents when I was born, that I've had a rewarding time of it. I started young at 17, and was given leading roles immediately. I made 62 movies, and upwards of 30 or maybe 40 plays. Lots of television, enormous amounts of radio. I've been fulfilled. Yes, there are lots of performances still in me, but nobody has asked me. But I'm learning so much of the outside world, and finding it stimulating and challenging, that I don't miss it acutely. I did a play a little bit ago, and I hadn't done one for 12 years... but I could. The voice is still there, and it's still strong. And it's directed by my nephew, Allen Hunt, who's a gifted director. We did "On Golden Pond," and if anybody asks me to do something that I'd like to do, I'll do it. In the meantime, or if not, is all that other to turn to and be enriched by.

Moderator: You were involved in the Golden Age of Hollywood. What was that like?

Hunt: It was heaven -- I don't mean that it had no faults, but I did realize that I was lucky in my timing of life, to be involved in a Golden Age. I knew those days were golden; I just didn't know those days were numbered. Who could dream that something that wonderful could come to an end, and it sure did. The loss of a major studio contract system of making movies, has impoverished the entire movie-going public, because each studio gathered people of talents in all the fields of performing, writing, directing, editing, composing, designing, all of these. The best that could be found all over the world were gathered in one studio, and I was blessed to be at MGM... and MGM was the best of them all. I had 7 years at MGM, and 3 years at Paramount. What they did was to nurture a talent, particularly a young one, and they would find roles that would develop, and bring that talent into a full flower. Thus, careers happened. And they grew... in performance, in skill, and it was a wonderful day. It was a Golden Age, and I'm sorry to see it end. But now we have billionaires all around in this economy, and it'd probably take billions to start up a major studio again. I think we may return to that day... Dreamworks is coming together, and very savvy gentlemen at movie-making, and maybe we can see some modified form that will bring back quality productions of films we can care about. There's very little example or role model, as the term now goes, on the screen... everything is the anti-hero, warts and all. We used to have biographies of people who made their lives count in some significant way, and all young America would look at the screen and say, "gee... that's possible." We don't have this; the role models kids speak of now, are rock, music stars, or sports people. That's all they even hear about. And the wonderful lives they never learned about...we need so much on the screen that brings hope and inspiration, and cheer, and gentleness again. I hope I hope, that the pendulum of sensation... of shock and shlock... will swing again to the constructive and beautiful. Meantime, I have to weather this. Speaking of the upper years, which I like as a term rather than "old age", the movie industry has ignored us. And they've lost a huge public. We're the ones who saved up the money; we have the price of admission. The kids going to the movies, are there on our allowance. But oh, most of us in our age have stopped going... unless we hear that there's something really worth seeing. What a pity.

Moderator: What was the last movie you saw?

Hunt: As a member of the Academy, we nominate and vote on Oscar winners... and we're sent videos. It was The Winslow Boy, and that's a beautiful film. It's a film version of a very fine play; it's literate and beautifully constructed. There isn't a single murder, no four-letter words, no car crashes... and there are such things, there aren't just enough of them.

Moderator: My grandmother is constantly depressed. Any advice on how to pick her up?

Hunt: That's hard -- depression can be caused by the events of one life, the limitations of one's own outlook, or even a chemical imbalance. I knew a wonderfully gifted writer, who was great fun, who went through a period of great depression... and he learned there was something in his system out of balance, and by taking medication, he bounced back to be the cheerful fellow we always knew. Don't give up; if she's cared about and shown things of beauty and interest, that maybe she'll respond to them. I hope so. It's so awesome to learn how large that audience must be, that I just want to say that its really, literally, a thrill to realize that whatever thoughts come tumbling out this way, unrehearsed and unplanned, that they can reach that far. Isn't it wonderful that the world is shrinking and we can all keep in touch with each other? I hope everyone finds it rewarding, because it is one planet. I love being in it, and I hope my friends out there enjoy their time in this world, as much as I've been blessed.

Moderator: Thank you for joining us, Marsha. WebMD members, please join us every Thursday at 1 pm EDT here in the Senior Vitality Auditorium for our live weekly event. Next week, we will be discussing The Genetics of Aging, with Anna McCormick, Ph.D.

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