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2020 Influencers in Aging

Michael J. Fox Still Looks to the Future

Living with Parkinson’s for more than 20 years, he calls himself an optimist and a realist

By Randi Mazzella

Television audiences were introduced to Michael J. Fox in the early '80s when he played Alex P. Keaton on the hit sitcom "Family Ties." 

The show made the Canadian-born Fox a household name and teen heartthrob (even though he was actually in his 20s.) Fox won three Emmys and a Golden Globe during the sitcom's seven-year run. The show is also where Fox met his wife of over 30 years, actor and cookbook author, Tracy Pollan.

Fox went from television screens to movie theaters, starring in "Doc Hollywood," "Teen Wolf," "Bright Lights, Big City" and of course, as Marty McFly in the "Back to the Future" trilogy. In 1996, Fox returned to TV to play Mike Flaherty in "Spin City."

It was during the filming of "Doc Hollywood" that Fox began to notice the first signs of what turned out to be early-onset Parkinson's disease (PD).

In 1998, Fox went public with his diagnosis. Two years later, in 2000, Fox retired from "Spin City" and founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. The foundation's mission is to improve the lives of those living with PD,  engage patients in research and to support the development of new treatments, including finding a cure.

After a four-year hiatus, Fox returned to acting. He has guest-starred on many television shows including "Scrubs," "Boston Legal," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "The Good Wife," "Designated Survivor" and "Rescue Me."

In addition to being an actor, the 59-year-old father of four children, who range in age from 31 to 19, is also the bestselling author of four books. His latest, "No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality," was released this month.

Here are some takeaways from the book, with Fox talking about getting older, living with PD and how he looks at the future.

At the conclusion of the story are Fox's responses to two Influencer in Aging questions that he answered exclusively for Next Avenue.

On His Return to Acting

One of the reasons Fox decided to leave "Spin City" was because he felt Parkinson's had caused his face to be less expressive than it used to be. In his book, Fox writes, "Gradually, with the effects of Parkinson's, my face began retreating to a passive, almost frozen disposition."

But over time, Fox realized he wasn't ready to be retired and that he could still be an actor with PD. Fox writes, "Acting is what I do, and I needed to find a way to do it."

"(Acting) took me further than I expected...If this is the end of my acting career, so be it."

He began taking character roles. "The array of characters I embodied in my second career all had something in common; they were overachievers…all were passionate, all had a flaw relatable to my own."

In the past 15 years, Fox has earned eight Emmy nominations (and a ninth for producing) – not bad for a "retired" actor.

Fox thinks that his days of putting in 12-hour workdays on set and memorizing seven pages of dialogue are probably behind him. But if he has filmed his last scene, he has no regrets.

 "(Acting) took me further than I expected …If this is the end of my acting career, so be it," he writes.

Age Is Just a Metric

Fox's mom and his mother-in-law (author Corky Pollan) are both vibrant, active women in their 90s. His mother still drives and is a terrific bowler.

As Fox says in the book, "Energetic and engaged in their nineties; they are architects of their own lives. In my fifties, I'm envious."

Why He Took Up Golf in His Mid-40s

Fox says playing golf is frustrating but it's also a gift, writing, "The game becomes an escape, relief and a release from my preoccupation with my health situation. When you are golfing, all you can think about is golf."

His First Tattoo at 58

Fox's first tattoo is of a turtle, inspired by one he met on vacation in 1999.

Back then, he was contemplating retiring from "Spin City" and creating a research-based Parkinson's foundation. He was in the ocean when he saw the battered turtle who had a scar on his beak and was missing a chunk of his fin. 

In his book, Fox writes, "The guy had obviously been through a lot, and had earned the right to go where he wanted… Sure it might be easier to just flow with the current, but sometimes you have to risk charting a new course."

"The truth is, I don't want to live like this, but I have found a way to accept the fact that I do."

Two decades later, Fox found himself thinking of himself as that turtle. Life had battered and bruised him, too. But like the turtle, he wasn't going to stop swimming. The tattoo, he writes, signifies the "power of resilience and the will to survive."

Strength in the Parkinson's Community

Sharing his diagnosis with the public in 1998 was hard for Fox. At the time, Parkinson's was considered an "old person's disease." Fox used his celebrity to help take away the stigma and launched the foundation in part to give the young-onset community a platform.

Through his foundation, Fox has found a community of people going through similar physical and emotional challenges. Together they support each other and work toward funding research for treatments.

In the book, Fox recalls telling another person with PD, "You've pushed me back up a few times, brother. You don't even know." 

On Staying Optimistic in the Face of His Illness

Fox had spinal cord surgery in April 2018. His recovery was going remarkably well until he took a fall.

Alone in his apartment, Fox waited for help while lying on the floor. He was physically and emotionally down. Known as someone who takes life's lemons and makes lemonade, at that moment, he declared himself  "out of the lemonade business."

Despite that fall, like the others before it and the ones that are bound to come, Fox finds a way to rise. He recounts the words in the chorus of the song "Harmony Hall" by Vampire Weekend, "I don't wanna live like this … but I don't want to die" and says he relates.

As he writes, "The truth is, I don't want to live like this, but I have found a way to accept the fact that I do."

Looking To the Future

Fox admits that as he gets older, it is easier to drift into melancholy. Still, he considers himself both an optimist and a realist. He is grateful for all the support he receives from his family, friends and the PD community.

Fox says, "They remind me that I have a life to step back into, which encourages me to be forward-thinking."

When asked about what's next, Fox admits he has no idea. He says in his book, "As for the future, I haven't been there yet. I only know that I have one."

Two Questions for Our Influencers

If you could change one thing about aging in America, what would it be?

In my book, I tell my daughter it's okay to care about me, without feeling she has to take care of me.  The same is true for our elderly population in this country. Caregivers are angels – but they often project their own fears and concerns onto their loved ones, presuming what they can and cannot do, how lucid they are, or not. It's nice to protect, but please don't project.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your perspective on aging?

The images that this pandemic have seared in my brain are those of people with their faces pressed against the glass of hospital windows, trying to glimpse their loved one, suffering and out of reach.  It reinforces the impulse that as I grow older and my life becomes understandably smaller, I take care not to lose contact with the people that I love. I must continue to value those relationships.

Randi Mazzella
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son.  Read more of her work on randimazzella.com. Read More

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Michael J. Fox Still Looks to the Future
Living with Parkinson’s for more than 20 years, he calls himself an optimist and a realist

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