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Interview: Ted Conover, author of "Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing,"
details his stint as a prison guard
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Writer Ted Conover spent a year as a guard at Sing Sing, a maximum security
prison north of New York City, by the Hudson River. His goal was to observe
the prison system from the inside and write a book about it. Conover is best
known for his book "Coyotes" about the world of illegal Mexican immigrants.
Sing Sing's initial structure was built in 1826. The prison now covers 55
acres, most of it rocky hillside. Conover describes the A Block, which was
completed in 1929, as probably the largest free-standing cell block in the
world, just 12 feet shy of two football fields. That one block houses about
684 inmates, more than the entire population of many prisons.
Conover's new book is called "Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing." I asked him
if he began the job with ideals of the kind of guard he wanted to be.
Mr. TED CONOVER (Author): I wanted to do the job well. I wanted to be a good guard. I didn't really know what that meant when I first got called to the
Corrections Academy, but it soon becomes clear that at least in one way, a
guard is someone who follows the rules, but in a more profound way, once
you're working the job, you see that a good guard is something between a
tyrant and a pushover. You have to walk this narrow line every day and strike
some kind of balance just between being too easy and being a total jerk.
And the longer you're there, in a way, the more you get your sea legs and
learn how to handle yourself. But also, the longer you're there, the more it
sort of grates on you and I think hardens you, and you may just become more
of a jerk automatically.
GROSS: What were considered the best and worst assignments for guards when
you were working there?
Mr. CONOVER: The main thing most COs--correction officers--want is not to
have to spend time around inmates, because it's inmates that make the job so
incredibly difficult and stressful. Inmates want to test guards all the time.
They want to defy you. There's a balance of power in prison that's sort of
reset every day, and if they don't know you, if you're a newjack--or a
rookie--they want to see what you're made of. And so the new guards get stuck
in the buildings where inmates live and handed big rings of keys that weigh
down your pants, and you let inmates in and out of their cells all day long
and help them when they need something.
After you've been there 10 years, you can instead sit in a wall tower--one of
the guard posts around the perimeter--and enjoy peace and quiet. Or you can
sit at a little-used gate all day long, and the job can be very tranquil and
nice. But when you start out, it's pretty much like war.
GROSS: What are the most potentially dangerous moments during the course of
your day, when you're guarding the cells and letting prisoners in and out of
Mr. CONOVER: Inmates are locked in their cells all night long, so the night
shift is a great shift. I worked the day shift, and every morning when I
arrived on the floor of the housing block with my keys, it would be quiet,
with all the inmates locked in their cells, but my first job of the day was to
let them out to go to breakfast, and in many ways, it felt like opening
Pandora's box. It's not a bad job while the inmates are in their cells, but
even maximum security inmates are let out of their cells several times a day,
en masse. If they were escorted individually to meals, to the classroom, to
the gym and the yard, it would require a staff of hundreds of guards.
And prisons are so expensive already that inmates are often let out many at a
time. And they're let out into a small space at Sing Sing. Old cell blocks
have sort of very narrow walkways outside the cells, and as the guard, you're
standing right next to them. And these are often very large and muscular
young men, and there are many of them, and often only one of you. And I
carried a radio when I worked on that gallery, that had an alarm pin on it
that would get me help if something terrible happened, but help can take
awhile to arrive, and so it's when you're surrounded by a mass of inmates, who
are headed somewhere or should be headed somewhere, that bad things can start
GROSS: What are some of the things you are taught in training about how to
handle, for instance, that moment in the morning when you first open up the
Mr. CONOVER: Well, it's interesting. Being a prison guard is
essentially--to work a people job. You deal with people all day long, and
yet, the training is sort of like boot camp. They are there to teach you
discipline and teach you the rules, and the main message is, `Your job will be
to enforce the rules.' What you have to learn is that you're dealing with sort
of--like being on a floor with a hundred violent criminals is like being
around a sort of unstable bomb or something. If you are too aggressive, or
one of them was having a particularly bad day, perceives disrespect, he might
slug you. Or you might happen to walk between two guys who've been waiting
for a chance to stab each other for the last two weeks, and they're going to
You never know, day to day, what might happen, but violence occurs every day.
Every day at Sing Sing, an inmate gets stabbed. On average, at lineup in the
morning, we would hear about this every single day. Less often, guards get
stabbed or punched or spit on or the other things that happen, but that
happens frequently, too.
GROSS: So were you ever the guard on duty while somebody was getting stabbed,
and it kind of fell to you to break it up?
Mr. CONOVER: That never happened with a shank, with a knife, but there were
a couple of times when inmates got into fights, and I was one of the officers
who pulled them apart and got them handcuffed, that sort of thing.
GROSS: Now when you started at Sing Sing, a lot of inmates said to you,
`You're going to learn that some things that they taught you in training can
get you killed,' and you weren't sure if this was meant to be good advice or
a threat. What were some of the things that the inmates warned you not to do?
Mr. CONOVER: What they are generally referring to is zealous enforcement of
the rules. Prison is basically a totalitarian culture that's organized with
rules. There are hundreds of rules, only some of them printed in the rule
book. For example, inmates get a sort of recreation on the ground floor of
the cell block buildings a few times a week. This is like an area with metal
picnic tables bolted to the cement floor, that's adjacent to maybe 80-some
cells, and the cells are supposed to stay locked, but lots of inmates, over
time, got to know the guards, who let them leave their cells open, so they can
go in and out of their cells, they can trade magazines or books with other
inmates, and if you come in fresh from the academy, you're told all those
doors stay locked. So, you know, when an inmate says that, `Some of the
things they taught you in the academy could get you killed,' he's basically
saying, `Don't enforce that rule, it's going to make me and a lot of other
people mad.' And some of these people, when they get mad, bad things happen.
So it's a kind of threat, and inmates are forbidden to make threats, and yet
it's an oblique kind of threat, and if you write an inmate a ticket, or try to
knock him down if he says it, you're going to look very silly. So there's
lots of gray area in prison, where the power politics are pushed back and
GROSS: How did you decide which rules to enforce and which rules to just, you
Mr. CONOVER: Every officer decides on his or her own priorities. For me, it
was less important to see that they made their beds before leaving their
cells or, you know, straightened everything up before going to chow, than it
was, say, that they didn't play their radios loudly.
There's a rule that if you suspect an inmate of using any--you know,
marijuana--you smell marijuana in a cell block all day long, but you can't
find the inmate who's smoking it, usually, you know. They'll take a couple of
tokes and away it goes, and you have no idea--there are more than 500 inmates
in the building where I mainly worked, and so you have to do what's practical.
And then you--I wanted to not be hypocritical to the degree that it was
possible, and since I've smoked marijuana recreationally, I thought that would
be pretty hypocritical to try and turn in all these guys for smoking
marijuana, so that was a rule I tended not to worry about.
But if I ever saw an inmate--a big one hitting up on a smaller inmate, trying
to get something from him or, you know, threatening another officer or another
inmate, I'd try to enforce those rules.
GROSS: It becomes so arbitrary, because you say you wouldn't try to enforce
the marijuana rule because you smoked it. Well, you also eat whenever you
want to and sleep whenever you want to and no one tells you to tidy up your
room, and--I mean, you're a free man, you know.
Mr. CONOVER: Exactly.
GROSS: And there are no privileges allowed to most people in prison--forget
Mr. CONOVER: Right. Oh, no, what you--you bring up a point that is very
central to the whole experience of working in a prison, which is the way
inmates are infantilized. They, you know, have shown themselves to be
incapable of living outside prison in most cases, and so here they are in a
world where they get to make very few decisions for themselves--you make all
these decisions, and you come home at the end of the day--and I'll never
forget the night I walked home, into my house, and saw my two-year-old
daughter screaming at me behind the bars of her crib, and I just thought,
`These two jobs are just alike, being a parent and working in a prison.' It's
just that the guys at prison can do you some real damage.
GROSS: How would you decide which prisoner to make an example of? Because
there are so many ways that could backfire. For example, you're white.
Mr. CONOVER: Right.
GROSS: I would imagine if you decided to make an example of someone who had
violated a rule that other people had violated, too, and that prisoner was
African-American, they can accuse you of picking on them because you're
Mr. CONOVER: That is absolutely true, and it happens all the time. About
half the inmates at Sing Sing are African-American, and another 40 percent are
Latino, and they are watching you all day long. Both sides are trying to see
if you are being nicer to the Latinos or to the African-Americans, and if you
have written your last two or three tickets, by coincidence, to an
African-American, you're going to hear about it, that you're a racist.
You know, you're going to be at your Klan meeting tonight, hope you enjoy it.
You know, you're soft on the--you're a Latino lover. You're just constantly
monitored like that. So it's a sort of lose-lose situation. You just try to
do what seems right. If you're having a problem with inmates not locking into
their cells promptly when you tell them to, you go for the guy who's the
worst, the worst offender and, you know, you lock him in--you take away his
afternoon recreation, and he's going to scream and shout, but people will
notice, and you hope to get more compliance that way, and you hope people
don't think you're singling them out because of their color.
But, you know, there's so much racial sensitivity in prison, you know. So many
African-American prisoners, for example, seem to feel they're prisoners of
war. There's very little feeling among many inmates that `I am here doing my
time because I did something wrong, and this is--I'm paying my debt to
society,' you know? There was a sort of rationale for prison, almost 200
years ago when Sing Sing was built, that seemed to be more of a contract
between a prisoner, a criminal, and society, and that's really sort of almost
gone completely out the window.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ted Conover. He's a writer who
spent a year as a corrections officer in Sing Sing, in the hope to better
understand what's happening inside America's prisons.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Ted Conover. He's a writer who spent a year as a guard at
Sing Sing maximum security prison in New York. This was his attempt to better
understand what's happening inside America's prisons.
What are some of the ways you watched yourself change while you were a prison
Mr. CONOVER: You know, I'm still--I feel like I'm still in recovery. I'm
still trying to assess all the things that working in prison that long did to
me. I think it makes you harder, tougher, more cynical, more skeptical of
people. It makes you less willing to give somebody the benefit of the doubt.
At the same time, you become conscious of, you know, not being too sensitive
to things. You know, if you feel a slight--you know, you're in a conversation
with somebody, just let it go. That's really the best prescription for
It made me wish I had the time to work out in a gym every day. Being a new
parent, I didn't. I think my job would have been easier if I was more bulked
up. It made me sad because, despite the title of corrections officer, there's
not much correction or rehab involved in the job. I think 50 years ago, while
they--guards were still called guards then--but there was still a glimmer of
optimism and the idea that prisons could turn certain people around, that they
could rehab people.
I mean, even back at the turn of the 19th century, when America built the
first penitentiaries in the world, there was this idea behind it that penitent
reflection, the Quakers' idea, could turn an inmate around, this hope that a
person might come out pf prison better than how they went in. And when you
work as a guard these days, there are times you wish there were some part of
the job that just let you think you were doing something that was going to
help this person. And instead, the job is stupider than that, and narrower
than that, and you get good at saying `No,' and that's basically where it
GROSS: Well, you know, I'm thinking if the job changed you in the ways that
it sounded like it changed you, imagine what it does to the prisoners.
Mr. CONOVER: Oh, yeah. I mean--or other guards, for whom it really is a
career. I mean, in theory I could have left anytime, but yet, to have that be
your career or, much more profoundly, as you say, to be an inmate, obliged to
be there for many years, it's a wonder that some come out with their humanity
intact, and I did meet inmates who I really felt delighted to find. You know,
here's somebody who's kept a glimmer of their soul alive.
I met this one amazing inmate--because I noticed one day in the summer, when
he had his shirt off, there was a poem, a long poem tattooed across his entire
back, and on the front, he had in very large letters, the word `Assassin.'
But on the back is this long poem, and it took a long time before he would
tell me what it was, and he finally said, `Oh, it's--you know, I copied it out
of a book I read at Riker's Island. You've never heard of it. It's a book by
a Jewish girl. She wrote a diary in World War II.' And I said, `Oh, Anne
Frank.' And he looked at me like I was from another planet, you know? A CO
who's read a book?
And it took me along time, because it's not really a poem, it's just the last
two lines of "The Diary of Young Girl.' But it's very poignant--it's words to
the effect that when everything around you is bad, you end up turning your
heart inside out, the bad part on the outside--I think I've got this--the bad
part on the outside, and the good part on the inside, and keep trying to find
a way to become what I'd like to be and what I could be, if only there were no
other people in the world.
And so here's a guy, 26 years old, I think, a robber from Puerto Rico, who has
found some common experience with, you know, a Jewish refugee in World War II,
and that was a cool thing. That was just the sort of thing I would never know
of if I hadn't done this, and that was the sort of thing that made it
GROSS: Did you spend a lot of time thinking about what these men were going
to be like when they're released from the prison culture that they've been in?
Mr. CONOVER: Oh, all the time, because I live in New York City, and I've
actually seen--since I quit, I've seen two inmates on subways, inmates who I
supervised as a guard at Sing Sing. They haven't recognized me--my hair's
longer now; I had a buzz cut back then--but no, you think about it all the
time. And, in fact, one inmate I got to know spent all his spare time
planning the robbery he was going to commit as soon as he got out. And he was
open about it. He said, `That's all I know how to do, and I'm going to get it
right next time. I'm not going to make a mistake and get caught.'
Another inmate--I was on the floor when his parole officer came by. This is
an inmate with mental problems who had nearly connected with a punch with me,
and he was getting paroled in a week, and I just thought--I said, `Well what
happens the day he forgets his medication on the subway? What's going to
happen?' And she said, `Not my problem--they all come back.' So that says a
GROSS: So you were hoping that the prison would help teach them skills to
help people live outside once they got out?
Mr. CONOVER: Yeah. Just give them some idea that there's another way you
might make a living and create a life that you would like that doesn't involve
victimizing people. But that's a very large and almost spiritual lesson, and
it takes a very big and sort of coherent effort to try to shape somebody's
life like that, and prisons today are not up to the task.
GROSS: Well, Ted Conover, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. CONOVER: My pleasure.
GROSS: Ted Conover is the author of "Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing." I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Interview: Architect and gerontologist Victor Regnier talks about
how the United States can look to northern Europe for guidance
in developing alternatives to nursing homes for older Americans
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
It's been said that the value and meaning of a civilization can be determined
from the record it leaves in the form of architecture and that the true
measure of society's compassion lies in how well it treats its frail, older
people. Those two observations have special meaning for Victor Regnier
because he's the former dean of the Architecture School at the University of
Southern California and now directs the university's Gerontology Center.
On Friday, at the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects in
Philadelphia, he will give a presentation about his travels through northern
Europe studying innovative approaches that encourage independent living for
the elderly, models he thinks Americans can learn from in helping to create
alternatives to nursing homes. One of his objections to most American nursing
homes is that they are based on a medical model and look more like hospitals
than homes. I asked him for his critique.
Professor VICTOR REGNIER (Director, Gerontology Center, University of Southern
California): To start with, from the street it's hard to tell what the
building is. Sometimes it looks a little like a public school, sometimes it
looks like a building that has absolutely no character associated with it.
But it doesn't appear to be housing.
Once you enter and start to look around, often you're confronted with someone
behind a glass window. And as you walk down the corridors, they're almost
always double loaded. There are nursing stations that are located in
strategic areas, and often there are older people that are crowded around
those nurses stations because of the paucity of activities in the setting.
Often, that's the place to go.
You find yourself in a room which is, more often than not, double occupied,
with a small curtain that separates you from the person next door. The floors
are almost always some type of hard surface material. It's loud. It's not an
environment that you think of as a housing setting. It's not a place where
you feel good and comfortable.
GROSS: I guess the space that's yours is your bed and your night table.
Prof. REGNIER: That's about right. And sometimes if you're lucky, it'll
have an easy chair adjacent to it. So there isn't much territory in terms of
overall space. You're sharing a bathroom and a window, and often the beds are
side by side, which makes it even a bit more difficult because you either own
the bathroom or you own the window, one or the other.
GROSS: You complain about the double-loaded corridors, with rooms on each
side of the corridor, what's the problem with that?
Prof. REGNIER: Well, first of all, it doesn't allow natural light to enter
the corridor, and it almost always requires an eight-foot extruded corridor
system that links to each of the units. One of the first things that you see
when you go to northern Europe is that they have ignored that aspect. Because
they have highly decentralized arrangements, each one of them is
self-contained and so they can be centered around a single-loaded corridor or
toward a larger room which is open to a garden. And the outcome is that
you're rarely, if ever, walking down a long corridor with rooms on both sides,
like you'd find in a typical hospital environment.
GROSS: You say in some northern European countries, the emphasis is on
keeping the elderly living at home for as long as possible. So that there's
service centers that give assistance to people living alone at home so that
they can continue to live there but still get the help that they need. What
are those service centers like? What do they provide?
Prof. REGNIER: They're really extraordinary. Probably the best thing about
their system in general is the seamless nature which is associated with group
housing arrangements that are often connected to these service houses and
people who are living in the community and are being provided home care. And
so an individual, whether they're in the community or in one of these attached
dwelling units, has access to 24-hour care, help and assistance, both personal
care and assistance, as well as medical care.
And so these settings, which are highly decentralized in almost every urban
neighborhood, are open to people who live in the surrounding community,
attract individuals for social and therapeutic purposes that live in the
surrounding neighborhood and also provide services to people who are living in
their own independent apartments and help to keep them as independent as
In fact, they push people back into the community by providing as much help
and assistance as possible, and when it's no longer possible for those
individuals to either receive the quality of care that's necessary or when
they start to feel uncomfortable and would look for and desire or prefer the
more supportive aspects associated with a group living arrangement, then
they're moved to a setting, a service house arrangement, that they're familiar
with in their own neighborhood.
So it's really a bit like a senior center and a housing environment that are
co-located. But in addition to those services, they'll have a rehab clinic,
Meals on Wheels program, a restaurant and often a whole slug of other types of
social programs that appeal to people who are over the age of 70.
GROSS: So specifically, which countries have you been to in northern Europe
that you were impressed with?
Prof. REGNIER: The five that I visited in 1990 and that I just revisited
this summer are Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands. And
those countries have had a strong reputation for this particular type of help
and assistance and have developed systems over the last couple of decades that
are really quite extraordinary, especially in comparison to what has happened
here in the United States.
You know, in 1965, with the advent of Medicare, we took a fundamentally
different approach to this than they did in northern Europe. We decided to,
in a way, medicalize long-term care through the nursing home model, while they
looked at the problem and thought about how they could create housing with
services. So you find really fundamentally different building types which
are, interestingly enough, catering to exactly the same population.
GROSS: Tell us more about some of those differences.
Prof. REGNIER: Well, some of the best ones in northern Europe are relatively
small. They'll attract six to eight people who are living in a decentralized
cluster. And, of course, there'll perhaps be as many as four or five or six
of those clusters together that make up the total building. But, essentially,
you and five to seven other people are living together in a small group
arrangement. You take your meals together. There's a very predictable and
familiar staff person or two who's there all of the time so you don't have to
refamiliarize yourself with new people every day or every week.
There's an emphasis on privacy. Everybody lives in a single-occupied unit.
The units that I've seen focus primarily on the living room, the dining room,
the kitchen, an activity space and perhaps an outdoor balcony or garden area,
so it's the cluster of those spaces, not unlike what you would experience in
your own single-family home, which define the environment itself.
GROSS: You know, in the United States, a lot of older people dread the day
when they will have to go to the nursing home or the assisted-living center.
It's something that I think is really dreaded, and because of that, a lot of
children go through terrible crises in trying to decide whether they should
encourage their parent to go to such a place. I'm wondering if it's the same
kind of crisis in the northern European countries that you studied.
Prof. REGNIER: Well, I don't think it's quite as much of a jarring change,
because instead of moving from a single-family house or apartment into a small
double-occupied hospital room, you're moving into an apartment of 500 to 700
square feet, which is essentially self-contained, with its own kitchen and its
own bedroom. So it's almost like moving to another apartment building, if
you're living in an apartment. So that change is not a major one.
In the United States, perhaps one of the major problems with conventional
nursing environments, long-term care as we know it, is the fact that it's not
family friendly. The family members don't feel necessarily that they're
invited and that they are an important participant in the caregiving process.
And that's something that you find handled differently, both in assisted
living and in these northern European settings. So the family doesn't feel as
disenfranchised. They feel as if they can be a participant, and that, I
think, is really, really important.
GROSS: My guest is architect and gerontologist Victor Regnier. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is architect and gerontologist Victor Regnier. He's been
studying northern Europe's innovative approaches to independent living for the
elderly, approaches he thinks we can learn from in providing alternatives to
Have you ever been in a position where somebody in your family has had to move
into a nursing home or assisted-care facility and you were in on that decision
and it was difficult to make?
Prof. REGNIER: Oh, yeah. My father and mother have both been in the nursing
home for the last four years. My father died in January.
GROSS: I'm sorry.
Prof. REGNIER: And both of them were living together in a nursing home in
the same room for about two and a half years. And so I spent a lot of time
with them and a lot of time with the people that were providing help and
assistance for them. And more often than not, I think they felt as if there
was a struggle between the regulatory bodies, which, in their mind, was the
reference group that they needed to impress, and the rest of the family
members that were out there trying to develop and maintain a relationship with
their parent. It's a very difficult thing to do, and the regulations don't
make it any easier. They make it more difficult.
GROSS: What were the regulations that the staff at your parents' facility
complained about most?
Prof. REGNIER: I think the idea--well, for example, one of the things they
told us was that we couldn't push the beds together so that they could hold
hands with one another at night because they needed to have access on both
sides of the bed, which I thought was a rather absurd requirement, especially
one that if the family was willing to waive it, it would be OK to overlook.
But to meet the letter of the law, that's exactly what was required. And it
became clear to us that we had no choice in the matter, that we either
complied or we moved to another building.
So sometimes it's simple things like that, just simple quality of life. My
parents have been together for 54 years and had never spent time away from one
another. And the fact that they were both living in the same room but
couldn't be together at night, since they shared the same bed for that 50-year
period, was one of those things that we just thought was a real tragedy.
GROSS: Was it your decision or your parents' decision to go to the nursing
Prof. REGNIER: Well, my mother has dementia, and my father had brain cancer,
so both of them were not in a state of mind to make an independent decision.
But it was a very difficult one for my brother and my sister and I. In fact,
my parents were at home with my sister for about two years, two and a half
years before they moved to the nursing home, and it just became much more
difficult for us to move my father. He was what they would call a two-person
move or lift, so it was impossible for my sister to manage his care by
herself, and that's really what precipitated the move to a nursing home. And
neither one of them were able to really live independently in an
assisted-living environment, which would have been my first choice.
GROSS: From your perspective as an architect, what are some of the things
you've seen in the design of facilities that help people with dementia
function in the world around them, in the environment around them?
Prof. REGNIER: Probably one of the best examples of dementia programming
I've also found in Europe. And that is their attitude toward activities of
daily living. They really see the older person--again, in these relatively
small, six- to eight-person environments--as carrying out normal activities of
daily living. So it's not at all common--uncommon, that is, to find older
people who are helping to prepare meals with the assistance of caregivers, or
who are setting the table or busing dishes. They see themselves as
Also, for people with dementia, there's a tendency for them to spend more time
outside of their unit with other people, so one has to examine the social
context a little bit more carefully as well. There needs to be a link and
connection between the individual's unit and those group meeting settings
where people will come together.
And, of course, there are lots of interesting and important rules to follow in
designing a dementia unit: making certain that people can walk in an
unimpaired way--wander, if you will--from one place to another without getting
lost. And making certain that access to outdoor gardens are available so that
they can walk outside if they care to, or they can participate in gardening
activities or whatever. All of these things can be done and can be done quite
well if the environment itself is designed in order to support those types of
GROSS: I'm sure you've been thinking, like, what would you like when it comes
time for you to use some help with your living? Have you thought ahead to the
changes you'd like to see by then? Yeah?
Prof. REGNIER: Well, you know--yeah. To talk a little bit about what the
Europeans have done, they have done some pretty extraordinary things. One of
the things that we have a problem with in the United States in continuing care
in retirement communities, and also just because the occupancy codes are tied
often to the competency level of individuals within buildings, we usually move
them from one place to another. If you're in a continuing-care retirement
community, you might make three or four moves before you die. You might move
from independent housing to assisted living to perhaps a nursing home and then
to a dementia unit before you leave.
So one of the things that they've been able to do in Europe is overcome some
of that propensity to link occupancy with ability. And they have what--the
Dutch, for example, have a model called the Apartments for Life(ph) program,
where people who are over the age of 55 move into what is essentially an
apartment building. About a third of them are 55 to 65, a third of them 75 to
85 and a third of them 85-plus. So that 85-plus population is really a
nursing home population but it's located within what's considered to be a
rather conventional apartment environment with nurses on call and the
possibility of aging in place, transforming that unit so that it's easy for
somebody who's very old and frail, sometimes bedfast or unable to gain
ambulation, to live in that unit independently.
And, for me, of all of the settings that I've seen, it's probably the one
that's the most appealing because it does allow one to create that continuity
and to grow older in a conventional apartment unit.
GROSS: You know, that Apartment for Life idea--the resistance that I could
see happening in the United States, as though a lot of people who are, say, in
their 60s don't want to be surrounded by people who are much older and much
sicker than they are.
Prof. REGNIER: Yeah. In that setting, there is a relatively large public
space on the first floor, an atrium of sorts, which supports a restaurant and
quite a few other facilities. Almost like a little minishopping center. And
part of that is a service center, like the one that we talked about a little
bit earlier. Because the units are so large, it's possible for people to
spend most of their time in their unit, or that's certainly a place where a
lot of activities can be centered, or they meet together with other people
that have disabilities that are similar to theirs in small group meeting
environments or in this big atrium and in various sections of the atrium where
there are chairs and tables that allow that to occur.
And it doesn't seem to be a problem. In fact, in talking with the people who
run a building in Rotterdam--it's called the Humanitist Project(ph)--they have
a huge waiting list and people who are quite interested in moving in at all
ages. So you do find that, at least in that culture, they've embraced this
notion that one can move into a setting like that, have an autonomous life and
be able to stay there as long as you need to.
GROSS: Do you think that people in northern Europe, because they have these,
you know, pretty good facilities, are less afraid of growing old than they are
in the United States?
Prof. REGNIER: That's an excellent question. I'm not really sure. I think
growing old is a difficult process for everyone, but I know that there's less
uncertainty about what that lifestyle is going to be like. And I think their
system, because of its structure, is really centered on consumer concerns.
So, you know, I guess my quick answer would be probably there is less
uncertainty associated with them.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Prof. REGNIER: It's been my pleasure.
GROSS: Victor Regnier is a professor of architecture and gerontology at the
University of Southern California. He'll discuss the northern European model
of independent living for the elderly at the American Institute of Architects
convention on Friday.
Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli watches celebrity week on "Who Want's to
Be a Millionaire." This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Review: TV program "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"
TERRY GROSS, host:
For the last few days, media news has been dominated by the high-stakes
face-off between Time Warner and Disney, two corporate media giants whose new
feud has removed ABC signals from several Time Warner cable systems. But TV
critic David Bianculli insists the real story and the real power is somewhere
else, with Regis Philbin.
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
Last summer, when "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" premiered on the
Disney-owned ABC as a limited-run summer tryout series, host Regis Philbin was
as stunned as everybody else when the show's first national ratings were
released. In typical Regis fashion, he barked, `We're gonna save ABC.' He
was joking then, but he turned out to be right.
"Millionaire," adapted from a hit British quiz show of the same name, grabbed
unusually large audiences for a summer series. When ABC renewed the show as a
limited series for the fall, it drew even bigger ratings. And when ABC
scheduled it as a weekly show, airing three times a week, sometimes more,
"Millionaire" kept growing and growing and growing.
It's hard to know how long the "Millionaire" phenomenon--and it is a
phenomenon--will last. The last time a quiz show was a hit in prime time,
back in the days of "The $64,000 Question" in the late '50s, the quiz show
scandal put an end to the genre before it was allowed to run its natural
course. But if you look at the durability of certain quiz shows in
syndication, like "Jeopardy!," which has been on the air since the Paleolithic
Era, there's no telling how long it might last.
Two things are really incredible and important about "Millionaire." One is
that it's achieved something that was presumed to be impossible in this modern
Internet, multi-TV set age. It's gotten different generations of viewers to
sit around the same TV set, watching the same show, the way we used to watch
TV 50 years ago. And the other amazing thing is that "Millionaire" works
wherever ABC sticks it, no matter what day, at what hour and against what
competition. In the history of television, this has never happened before.
On Sunday, ABC put "Millionaire" against the powerhouse CBS newsmagazine "60
Minutes" for the first time and beat "60 Minutes" handily. Later this month,
ABC is putting "Millionaire" against "ER." And this week, "Millionaire" is
upping the ante by presenting its first-ever celebrity edition. It makes an
enjoyable show even more fun, and it's clear that the celebrities themselves
are as familiar with the game as everyone else. Like Dana Carvey, for
instance, who imitated Regis to provide the bogus introduction to Monday's
kick-off celebrity show.
(Soundbite of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire")
Mr. DANA CARVEY: (As Regis Philbin) Join us from New York for night 3,284 of
"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
BIANCULLI: When celebrity contestants take the hot seat, they're a little
less respectful of Regis, which also is a blast to watch. Here's David
Duchovny of "The X-Files" midway through a run that got him to the $250,000
level before he guessed incorrectly and walked away with $32,000 for charity.
(Soundbite of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire")
Mr. REGIS PHILBIN: Nine away from a million. For $4,000, take a look. Tom
Hanks' Oscar acceptance speech for "Philadelphia" was the inspiration for what
movie? "The Opposite of Sex," "Mr. Holland's Opus," "In and Out," "Music of
Mr. DAVID DUCHOVNY: That music is really bugging me. Can you turn it off?
Mr. PHILBIN: No.
Mr. DUCHOVNY: That'd be C, "In and Out."
Mr. PHILBIN: "In and Out"?
Mr. DUCHOVNY: Yeah.
Mr. PHILBIN: Final answer?
Mr. DUCHOVNY: Huh? Yeah, it's my final answer!
Mr. PHILBIN: Mulder getting hot. Mulder right again, for $4,000!
BIANCULLI: So what's next for ABC on the quiz show front? The producer of
"Millionaire" is going back to England for more inspiration and is tapping
another BBC quiz show. This one is called "Mastermind" and is as far from
"Millionaire" as you can get. There are no lifelines, no multiple choice and
no easy questions. Contestants select an area of expertise, then are hit with
questions about that subject and then a round of more general ones. The
rounds last two minutes, and whoever answers the most questions correctly
For the US version, which will arrive this summer, no host has yet been
chosen. In England, the same host, Magnus Magnuson, has been firing off the
tough questions for more than two decades. British installments of
"Mastermind" can be seen on occasion on cable's BBC America. Here's a quick
taste of what may turn out to be the next big thing among American quiz shows.
(Soundbite of "Mastermind")
Mr. MAGNUS MAGNUSON: Your name, please.
Mr. KEVIN ASHMAN: Kevin Ashman(ph).
Mr. MAGNUSON: Occupation.
Mr. ASHMAN: Civil servant.
Mr. MAGNUSON: In the first round you took Martin Luther King; in the
semifinal you took The History of Western Movies. What is your chosen subject
Mr. ASHMAN: The Zulu War.
Mr. MAGNUSON: Kevin Ashman, you have two minutes on The Zulu War, starting
now. Who was the Zulu king when the war broke out in 1879?
Mr. ASHMAN: Cetshwayo.
Mr. MAGNUSON: Correct. In 1878, who was the new secretary of state for the
colonies who believed war could be averted by peaceful settlement?
Mr. ASHMAN: Hickspeech(ph).
Mr. MAGNUSON: Correct. Who was an overall commander of the British forces
which invaded Zulu land?
Mr. ASHMAN: Chelmsford.
Mr. MAGNUSON: Is right. Where southwest of Rorks Drift(ph) were
Chelmsford's headquarters by early January, 1879?
Mr. ASHMAN: Helbager(ph).
Mr. MAGNUSON: Correct.
BIANCULLI: Will a show this smart catch on? I don't have a final answer.
All I know is when it comes to the makers of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"
betting against them doesn't seem very intelligent at all.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for The New York Daily News.
(Soundbite of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" by Cole Porter)
Ms. SUSANNA MAQUARKEL(ph): (Singing) Who has an itch to be filthy rich? Who
gives a hoot for a lot of loot? Who longs to live a life of perfect ease and
be swamped by necessary luxuries? Who wants to be a millionaire? I don't
have flashy flunkies everywhere. I don't. Who wants the bother of a country
estate? A country estate is something I'd hate. Who wants a fancy foreign
car? I don't. Who wants to tire of caviar? I don't. Who wants a marble
swimming pool, too? I don't. I don't, 'cause all I want is you. Who wants
to be a millionaire? Who wants uranium to spare? Who wants to journey on a
gigantic yacht? Do I want a yacht? Oh, how I do not. Who wants to wallow in
champagne? Who wants a supersonic plane? Who wants a private landing field,
too? I don't. I don't. All I want is you.
GROSS: Susanna Maquarkel singing Cole Porter's "Who Wants to Be a
Millionaire." FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry
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