He Gave Us the World as It Should Be

DENNIS BARTEL

May 29, 1992|By DENNIS BARTEL

In the early 1970s as a college student, I worked as a researchassistant for the Andrus Gerontology Center at USC, as part of a National Institute of Mental Health study called ''Television: A Therapeutic Tool for the Aged.''

The purpose of the study was to determine how residents of life-care communities (old-age homes, as they were commonly known back then) used TV, thereby paving the way for in-house cable TV systems that these homes could use to communicate with and instruct their residents.

We issued residents television sets with monitor devices built into the back, for a period of six to ten weeks each. I worked in the field, installing TVs, collecting data from the monitors and interviewing ''subjects'' for anecdotal records.

This was often a grim chore. Nearly all our subjects were closing in fast on the end. Most were simply waiting it out and didn't expect to wait long. Usually when I made my rounds I found subjects sitting bedside in a wheelchair watching our portable color TV with the blank stare of the helpless and uninterested.

(To guard against subjects leaving the TV on without watching, it was equipped with a ''perturbator'' that caused the TV to go off every 15 minutes. The subject had to turn it back on by remote control.)

I'd say that the men at the VA hospital were probably in the worst shape. One man I remember had been in the same ward since World War II. After he died (while watching TV, as the data revealed) $70,000 in cash was found stuffed inside his hollow wooden leg.

The study lasted three years. The subject population grew to be statistically significant. It included dozens of old-age homes in every section of southern California and cut across most lines of social class, education level, race and physical impairment. The only constants were that all the subjects were over 65 and they all lived with other old people.

What did they watch? News. They watched news in far greater percentages than did their counterpart seniors in the general population, as measured by Nielsen. Local news, national news, it didn't matter. The news program they watched depended mostly on the meal schedule. If they were expected in the dining room at 6, they watched the news at 5, and vice versa. (Very few subjects watched the 11 o'clock news.)

This was encouraging for us researchers. It somehow seemed to lend importance to our study. It suggested that residents in old-age homes, despite the blank stares I so often encountered, were still keenly interested in the world. It lent promise to the future of in-house TV info-networks for the aged and infirm.

Except for one finding. At the top of the list of favored programs was ''Memories With Lawrence Welk.'' Where the top-rated news program was watched by 19.5 percent of our subjects, Lawrence Welk was watched by 30.3 percent. (The show's equivalent Nielsen figure was 9.6)

In every old age home it was the same. Saturday night at 7:30 was reserved for Lawrence Welk and his ''champagne music,'' for the Lennon Sisters, for Norma Zimmer the Champagne Lady, for polkas and inspirational songs.

Having only recently emerged from an infatuation with Alice Cooper, I had no way of understanding what our geriatric subjects saw in Lawrence Welk. I prided myself at not ridiculing their viewing preferences at the time, but I admit I was a little

concerned that our long and expensive study might by trivialized in the eyes of the National Institute of Mental Health for having made the ''wunnerful'' discovery that old people watch Lawrence Welk.

Now, with the passing of the old TV maestro, I've revisited the final narrative report of our study, and the anecdotal records I collected. Then as now, I'm no research analyst, but it seems to me that the subjects in our study watched Lawrence Welk for some very particular reasons.

One entry in my anecdotal records, from a 77-year-old woman with Lou Gehrig's disease, reads: ''Most of what's on TV I have trouble watching. It upsets me, makes me nervous. But I like 'LW' -- it brings back lots of memories.''

Another, from a 72-year-old man with a broken hip, reads: ''They don't write music like that anymore.''

I am left to wonder now if maybe our subjects watched the news to see the world as it is, and Lawrence Welk to see the world as it should be.

That's why the death of Lawrence Welk, whose dowdy music, hokey wholesomeness and bubbles I could never abide, now seems more important than I ever thought it would.

Last Sunday I tuned in to the Lawrence Welk rerun on public television, and I was glad when the smiling maestro raised his baton: ''Ah-one, ah-two . . .''

Dennis Bartel writes from Baltimore.

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