Indefatigable spirit

Indefatigable spirit

Dorothy Ostwind Fadiman
Dorothy Ostwind Fadiman

When Lois Perelman first began to require supplemental oxygen because of emphysema, about 10 years ago, she was reluctant to be seen in public with her tank in tow.

Consequently, she found herself staying home, or cutting outings short.

That got old fast.

So, the now 84-year-old resident of Riverview Towers underwent a bit of an attitude adjustment, and decided not to let that oxygen tank hold her back.

Her indefatigable spirit is captured in the eight-minute documentary, “Breathe Easy,” that shows Perelman teaching an Osher class at Carnegie Mellon University, grocery shopping, and participating in an exercise class, all while connected to an oxygen tank.

The film, produced by Perelman’s sister, Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker Dorothy Ostwind Fadiman, will be screened at Riverview, Saturday, Dec. 7, at 6:30 p.m. along with two other short documentaries also produced by Fadiman.

Fadiman, who grew up in Pittsburgh but has lived in California since 1961, will be at Riverview for the film screenings.

“She has a very active spirit,” Fadiman said of her sister, who is 10 years her senior. “She was diagnosed many years ago, but the disease has been quite progressive.”

Fadiman was inspired by Perelman’s “courage and vigor” in refusing to let her dependence on an oxygen tank hold her back, so she brought a film crew to Pittsburgh about five years ago to capture her sister living life to its fullest.

“I went for a while just with oxygen inside the house,” said Perelman, who smoked cigarettes for 40 years. “But when it reached the point when I had to go out with it, I took it to exercise class, to the market, and I taught my class at CMU, all with oxygen.”

The class Perelman taught was called “Aging with Wit and Wisdom.” She continued the course until a year ago, she said, when the exertion of working with each student individually became a bit too much for her.

But her teaching days are far from over. She is currently doing research to teach a class on existentialism at Riverview.

“I need a project,” she said. She believes the topic of existentialism will stimulate her students because “nobody knows anything the hell about it.”

“I think it will be good mental stimulation,” she said. “It’s certainly an interesting subject. It’s something most people don’t get into.”

For Perelman, the secret to living well as one ages is “brain jiggling,” she said.

The importance of a positive attitude in coping with aging and illness is also the subject of the other two films produced by Fadiman that will be screened Saturday night at Riverview. “Shattering the Myth of Aging” celebrates seniors who, by participating in a full range of athletic activities, become stronger and more active as the years go by. “Moment by Moment” is the story of a determined woman’s physical and psychological recovery from a severe spinal cord injury following a dramatic automobile accident.

Fadiman, who graduated from Taylor Allderdice in 1957, and attended the University of Pittsburgh, has 25 of her films in circulation, she said.

“All of my films are either related directly or indirectly to human rights or social justice,” she said.

Her current projects include films about the importance of repairing small appliances to keep them out of landfills, and the fragility of the monarch butterfly population.

Her first film, 1978’s “Radiance: The Experience of Light,” was inspired by “a profound experience” she had in the 1960s while on LSD, which, at the time, was still legal in California.

“I have had a pretty wild life,” the filmmaker said.

And she has certainly made her mark in her field.

In addition to winning an Emmy, her honors include an Oscar nomination and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Gold Medal.

“We’re really excited to have an award-winning filmmaker [come to Riverview],” said Gerrie Delaney, program director at Riverview. “It’s a nice thing to happen to us.”

In the meantime, posters advertising the film have been displayed on the walls of Riverview, sporting photos of Perelman.

“I get a kick out of it,” Perelman said. “My only concern is that I have energy to deal with the event itself. I watch the video, and I say, ‘Who is that girl?’”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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