Alan Alda Opens Up About Living with Parkinson's and His Torturous Battle with Polio as a Child
In the new issue of AARP the Magazine, M*A*S*H star Alan Alda opens up about life, love, and what he's learned
At 84, Alan Alda is a survivor — and he's doing just fine during the current pandemic, riding out the storm at his home in Long Island, New York, with his wife of 63 years, Arlene, 87.
"I'm having a good time under the circumstances," he tells the June/July issue of AARP the Magazine, shared exclusively with PEOPLE. "I've found a lot of positive things. I'm very happy about some of the changes we've had to go through. For one thing, my wife Arlene is looking for ways to be creative during this time, so she's gone back to painting and drawing, and she plays the piano every day and she's experimenting with cooking." He adds: "I haven't eaten this well since the last epidemic."
The actor and science buff, who was at a time best known for his years playing surgeon Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce on the hit show M*A*S*H, knows a thing or two about getting through tough times.
As a 7-year-old, he was diagnosed with Polio, and underwent six months of therapy that involved having scalding blankets wrapped around his limbs every hour. "It was hard on me," he tells AARP. "It was harder, I think, on my parents, who couldn't afford a nurse and had to torture me themselves. It's always better to pay somebody to torture your kid."
"A lot of people hear they have Parkinson’s and get depressed and panicky and don’t do anything, just hoping it’ll go away. It’s not going to, but you can hold off the worst symptoms. Movement helps: walking, biking, treadmills. But also specific things: I move to music a lot." He tells the magazine, "It's not the end of the world when you get this diagnosis."
So how does he retain his positive attitude, especially with all the uncertainty in the world?
"You know, with the world changing so rapidly, there’s no point in being optimistic or pessimistic about anything. You’ve just got to surf uncertainty, because it’s all we get."
Always curious about science (in 2009 the actor founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University on Long Island), he says he turns to educating himself on the mysteries of the world 25 years ago, and encourages others to be more curious as well, to learn real facts instead of believing everything they might see online. "It's clear our lives depend on it," he says of embracing science and sharing information outside of your inner circle.
He adds, "One of the most basic things I’ve tried to do is give people a greater understanding of how science works — the importance of evidence, the importance of many trials, of rigorous studies, and the idea that we learn only a little bit at a time. No single study is the end-all answer for everything."
In October, Alda gave an update about his Parkinson's diagnosis on the Today show — and shared why he feels “like a kid" in his early eighties.
To maintain an active lifestyle and help hold back the progression of Parkinson’s, the star said that he regularly exercises. “I work out. You can hold back the progress if you do a lot of specific exercises. So I do a lot of crazy things,” he said.
Among the physical activities that Alda enjoys is boxing, juggling, tennis, swimming, marching and bicycle riding.
A unique one that he regularly does? “I march to [John Philip] Sousa music,” he said with a smile. “A lot of Sousa music going on all the time in my house.”