By: Pat Piper
Three days after a routine physical last November, 84-year-old Louis Zorich was called by his doctor and told that he had type 2 diabetes. The first words out of the seasoned actor’s mouth were “There’s been a mistake.” Louis, who’s been married to Academy Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis for 47 years, proceeded to explain (incorrectly) to his doctor, “Men don’t get diabetes. My three brothers don’t have it, but my mother had it….It may be genetic, but only the female side of my family can have diabetes.”
Louis’ doctor patiently explained that diabetes affects both men and women, that it does have a genetic component, and that he was writing Louis a prescription for a pair of standard oral type 2 medications.
When Louis gave the news to Olympia, she immediately thought of its possible genetic consequences for their three children. “My first reaction, when Louis told me, was that we needed to let our children know,” she told Diabetes Health. “It’s important because it’s a ‘preview of coming attractions,’ and they may develop diabetes later in life. Age 65 to 70 seems to be when it hits a lot of people.”
Recent studies confirm Olympia’s estimate: 18.4 percent of people age 65 and older are diagnosed with diabetes. But even more telling is another set of numbers: Seven out of ten people 65 and older have diabetes or prediabetes (glucose levels that are too high, but not high enough to diagnose type 2), but half of them don’t know it. This means that their bodies are already being stressed and possibly damaged as a result of high blood sugar.
After their children were made aware of the diagnosis, Olympia and Louis kept to their busy schedules. He began rehearsals for the Classic Stage Company’s off-Broadway production of Uncle Vanya, and she continued shooting scenes for an upcoming film and traveling to support causes or receive awards. But they both thought about the fact that if Louis have not been screened during a routine doctor visit, they would never have known about his diabetes.
“I was astounded by the fact that so many people our age aren’t aware that they can be screened for diabetes at no cost, through Medicare,” Olympia recalls, “Louis and I weren’t.” Since 2005, Medicare has provided free screening for anyone age 65 and older who has a diabetic risk factor (obesity, overweight, a family history of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or a history of gestational diabetes). Unfortunately, only 10 percent of seniors take advantage of the free screening. Working with Novo Nordisk, both Louis and Olympia have taken leading roles in getting the word out to seniors about asking for a glucose screening. In fact, there’s a website that puts it all in three words: askscreenknow.com
Looking back, Olympia recalls that her husband’s behavior had changed before his diagnosis. Although she hadn’t been concerned at the time, in retrospect she quickly connected the dots and realized that he hadn’t been the Louis she knew. “I can tell by looking at him,” she notes. “Now he is much more available in terms of what’s really happening. Before, I started to hear him say that he didn’t want to go to such-and-such a place or that he was too tired. I asked him about it [at the time], and we both agreed that it was probably the result of other medications he was taking. This has all changed during the past seven months.”
That’s because Louis is doing things differently. He’s following his doctor’s advice, and he’s eating lots of raw vegetables instead of pasta or Olympia’s favorite, Greek food. But the new diet wasn’t initially his idea. He was introduced to it by his Uncle Vanya co-stars, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard. “They had a table right outside the dressing rooms,” he says, “and every two days or so they’d stock up the table with nuts, raw vegetables, and juices I’d never heard of. Thanks to them, I started eating as they did and when I went to the store, I started buying products like that.” “We talk in food groups now,” Olympia adds. “He’ll say ‘Gee, I haven’t had any protein in five hours!'”
Louis changed his activity levels, too. He enjoys bike riding, and he now walks the 50 minutes to the theater every day instead of taking a cab.
“Since the phone call from the doctor, I’ve been going by how I feel,” says Louis. “I try not to eat too much, and for the first time I find myself pushing the plate away. I’ve never done that. Look, I come from a family of six or seven, where you guard your food and finish everything that’s on the plate. Now I have learned the words ‘That’s enough.’ I really think this is hooked up with having diabetes, not something that just occurred one day. I’ve lost weight too.”
Olympia and Louis say that talking to each other and being proactive with diet and exercise is part of the new regime in their home. But, notes Olympia, a sense of humor also plays a role in their new script. “We’re not like that commercial on television where someone has a headache, doesn’t know what to do about it, and has to hear the partner say ‘Take an aspirin’ as if it’s a major medical breakthrough!” “It’s never been ‘don’t eat this, don’t eat that, or just eat this,'” Louis adds.
Through their work, both Louis and Olympia have seen the effects of diabetes. Louis played Paul Reiser’s father, “Burt,” in the former NBC hit “Mad About You,” and one moment from the seven-year series stands out in his memory. “Cynthia Harris, who played my wife, and I were just about to shoot an episode where we’re sitting around the table. The assistant director counts us down to action, ‘5-4-3-2,’ and when he gets to that point, Cynthia collapses. And I’m next to her, thinking ‘What the heck is happening?’ One of the camera men says ‘Hey, it’s OK, I know what’s going on,’ and he yells to get some orange juice. I knew Cynthia had diabetes, but I didn’t know what was happening. So they brought her the orange juice and she felt better, and we started doing the scene as if nothing had happened. The camera man saved the day.”
Olympia recalls her role in “Steel Magnolias” with Julia Roberts and Sally Field. “Julia Roberts played Shelby, who died from diabetes while giving birth. It’s a true story by Bob Hardings, based on what happened to his sister. It’s painful, and that was the first time I wanted to raise people’s consciousness about medical things. I started doing advocacy for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation after the film came out. This was something that hit home.”
Despite their understanding of the impact that diabetes can have, both Louis and Olympia realize that the diagnosis Louis received last November could have been worse. “It’s treatable,” Louis says. “That’s the big thing. Lou Gehrig’s disease isn’t. Diabetes is liveable.”
Olympia is quick to add that paying attention to health requires putting aside all the standard excuses that people tend to use after age 65. “We are living longer, so things like diabetes are there.” she observes. “But it seems that there are always many reasons not to face it. People don’t want to know, or people don’t want to worry about it, or they don’t want to have to worry about how to take care of it, or it’s going to cost money, or they may have to go to the doctor, and it just goes on and on endlessly. The longer you live, the more the body breaks down, and you have to stay ahead of it.”
That’s why these days, Louis and Olympia are center stage whenever the topic turns to the health of anyone over age 65. In fact, they’re usually the ones to bring it up. After all, despite the excuses, staying ahead of diabetes is easier than trying to catch up later, after its complications have already begun. Louis and Olympia have met the challenge of diabetes full-on, together, and with confidence that they can have a positive effect not only on their own lives, but also on the lives of others.