By: Mary Milewski
If you watch television or see an occasional movie, chances are you’ve seen—and maybe even identified with Wilford Brimley.
The 70-year-old gruff and grandfatherly actor seems as comfortable with himself in person as he is on the screen.
“It’s a good life,” Wilford Brimley says simply.
And, he should know. He has played dozens of roles through four decades, appearing in “The China Syndrome,” “Cocoon,” “The Firm,” “The Natural,” “The Road Home” and “The Waltons,” among many others.
You may also know him from Quaker Oats commercials—“It’s the right thing to do. And the tasty way to do it!”
Brimley’s characters have names that summon up images of down-home, salt-of-the earth types, much like Brimley himself: Pop, Gus, Red, Iowa Bob and Bingo Gibbs. Brimley started out as a farmer and rodeo rider but moved on to work as a blacksmith and finally as an actor.
Then 25 years ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes.
“I developed symptoms including unquenchable thirst, and I lost about 25 pounds, ” Brimley says of the time just before his diagnosis. “I went to the doctor, and he said, ‘You’ve got diabetes.’ He sent me to a very fine endocrinologist, and I spent quite a bit of time with the doctor. He explained some things about diabetes to me, and I’ve been going ever since.”
Brimley says he wasn’t scared when he heard he had diabetes. “I just knew something was wrong. I probably had it a year before I dealt with it. I got sicker and sicker, and it affected my eyesight. As soon as my doctor put me on insulin injections and my blood glucose levels improved, so did my vision.
Honesty on Meals and Meds
Brimley says he does not have any tricks to staying in control.
“I just do what they told me about 25 years ago and what the doctor has recommended since then. I’ve learned how to slide the insulin scale and take more or less.”
He allows himself an occasional dessert, he says. “I went to a Christmas party on Christmas Eve and they had a wonderful array of desserts. I first looked them over carefully, and I decided I would have a very small portion of one of them. That satisfied me completely.”
It all has to do with how he feels, he says. “I don’t like the feeling of what really high blood glucose does to me. I learned early on that too many carbohydrates raise my blood glucose levels higher than I want. Now, on rare occasions I go up, but I try to keep it below 150 mg/dl. That’s my goal.”
Wants to Be There for the Grandkids
Brimley says the important thing for other type 2s and type 1s is to stay on top of their blood glucose levels and visit the doctor.
“I just went through a complete physical. My heart is in good shape. I have a little neuropathy in my feet, but after 25 years with diabetes, I’ve got no complaints.”
For people who need motivation to take care of their diabetes, Brimley makes this suggestion: “Take a piece of paper and put a line down the middle, with a plus on one side and negative on the other. List the things that pertain to your life. If the pluses outweigh the negatives, then it would behoove you to take care of yourself. If the future might bring some good things, you might want to stick around.”
Brimley says he wants to stick around to spend time with his three grown children and his seven grandchildren.
He thinks others should do the same—take care of themselves to be around for their families.
“I would encourage people, especially people over 50 years old, to be examined to see if they’ve got diabetes, and not to be afraid of it,” he says. “It’s not something that needs to scare you. It’s not a death sentence necessarily, but that’s up to you. You can learn about your body, if you just pay attention, then keep a log of blood glucose tests and carbohydrate intake like I do. And mainly, do not be afraid.”
A Lot to Live For
Between his grandchildren, his ranch and his passion for horseback riding, Brimley has a lot to live for. But, on top of all this, he has something he treasures even more.
“One thing that makes my life wonderful is that I have a lady in my life who really gives me the support I need. She is the love of my life,” Brimley says, with the same gentle honesty and sincerity that has enamored audiences of many of his characters for decades. “Heidi gives me what I need to get up each morning and do what I need to do to be healthy.”
Brimley puts things into perspective, prioritizing his personal life.
“I need to be feeling good and be healthy, otherwise life won’t be fun and I won’t be any good to anyone,” he says. “As soon as you can get your diabetes managed, the better off you are and the more pleasant you are to the people around you.”