Debbie Reynolds’ Secrets for Aging Well

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When you think of this award-winning star from Hollywood’s golden era, what comes to mind? Singing in the Rain? Tammy and The Unsinkable Molly Brown? Or perhaps the hit TV series Will and Grace, and the recently released One for the Money?

Debbie Reynolds, who recently turned 80 (April 1, 2012) has entertained generations of fans. But what many people may not realize is the legendary star of screen and stage has also been a family caregiver since the age of 14, when she looked after her ailing grandmother as well as her mother, who had become ill with a heart condition.

She eventually looked after her father and her mother-in-law as well, and in recent years she even adopted a senior friend (her former drama coach) whose own family had abandoned her — and became that friend’s caregiver as well.

These days, she’s been called the ‘caregiver’s caregiver’ as she shares her personal experiences of informal caregiving to help others in a similar situation.

50PLUS recently had the opportunity to speak to Ms. Reynolds about caregiving — and her secret for successful aging.

On being a caregiver

50PLUS: I know you’re planning to come to Toronto next month to talk about your personal experiences with caregiving. You’ve been caring for your family and loved ones over a period of many years — even while you were a working actress.

Debbie Reynolds: Yes, back then I was working and also raising my children. (She raised two children and three stepchildren.) I was the primary caregiver and the primary breadwinner. I did have the assistance of others along the way, including my brother-in-law who was a tremendous help. It was a busy time, but I was young and healthy, and we made it work. I couldn’t bear to see anyone feeling lonely and unloved.

50PLUS: I realize each situation is different, but if you could give family caregivers one piece of advice what would it be?

DR: Patience — and love. It can become very stressful, especially if you’re caring for multiple people at the same time.

50PLUS: When it comes to caregiving, we often talk about the challenges, and there certainly are many of them. But there is also joy in caregiving.

DR: Yes, caring for others gave me great joy. I was looking after young people and old people at the same time — and in return they gave me a purpose and made me feel loved. It came down to this: if they were happy and loved, then I was happy and loved.

On aging well

50PLUS: Our readers are very much interested in staying active, engaged and productive well past the traditional retirement age. Something that you certainly have done! What is your secret for successful aging?

DR: Exercising on a daily basis has made a huge difference to me. After over 60 years of dancing, I have a number of old injuries that sometimes bother me. (I even fell off a stage once!) I have osteoarthritis and arthritis, and to be honest, I sometimes have to force myself to exercise — but it really helps; it makes me feel wonderful.

50PLUS: What sort of exercise do you do?

DR: Water exercises. Not necessarily swimming, but more like rolling and stretching in the water. Over my career, I’ve always used water exercises to heal my injuries and to keep my legs firm and strong. The legs are often the first thing to go as you age — and you need to keep your legs strong not only as a caregiver, but to get you through the hike of life.

50PLUS: I like the way you put it — the hike of life. Any future plans or projects we should know about?

DR: I plan to continue with my concert tour (a 2+hour show). I have been travelling 42 weeks a year, but I may cut back to 30 weeks.

Watch this clip of Ms. Reynolds in 1964’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown, for which she received an Oscar nomination:

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