The Greening of Aging
William Thomas | physician, farmer
It's summer in upstate New York, the sun is shining, and it's time to make hay. Bill Thomas, medical doctor, gentleman farmer, and deep thinker, heads out to take the year's first cutting. His is a "mixed power" farm, which means that the tractor shares the load with a pair of massive 1-ton workhorses. Thomas takes the reins, clucks his tongue, and sets out across the field.
"People have forgotten some of the most important things that animals can teach us," he says over the din. "These horses aren't machines. They demand respect, and a good teamster is always thinking about what they are thinking." Near the top of a rise, Thomas stops the team for a rest. They huff audibly. "It happens all the time in organizations," says Thomas. "Managers let themselves be driven by results alone; they just want more, more, more, and they don't listen when the people who work for them start breathing hard and getting tired. They think the world is a machine, and it's not."
Perhaps because of his vantage point, here among the plants and living creatures of Summer Hill, a 258-acre working farm in Sherburne, N.Y., this Harvard-trained doctor doesn't look at organizations and search for the efficiency of a machine but instead imagines the wild and nurturing possibilities of a garden. He's brought this perspective to a most unlikely domain--the world of nursing homes. As a medical director at an upstate New York nursing home in the early '90s,Thomas moved dogs, cats, birds, and plants into a facility and radically shifted the focus from delivering scheduled institutional care to providing for the dignity and emotional well-being of the residents. Called the Eden Alternative, the project was a success and allowed Thomas to create a nonprofit that now lists 300 Eden Home conversions in America and an additional 200 overseas.
Thomas is now on to his next big thing: the Green House Project. The first Green Houses were constructed in Tupelo, Miss., in 2003. Now that an intensive evaluation has documented their success, Thomas has teamed up with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to replace more than 100 nursing homes nationwide with clusters of small, cozy houses, each sheltering eight to 10 residents in private rooms, with private bathrooms and an open kitchen. In other words, a place like home.
Revolutionary. With his startling common-sense ideas and his ability to persuade others to take a risk, this creative and wildly exuberant 46-year-old country doctor has become something of a culture changer--reimagining how Americans will approach aging in the 21st century. And with 35 million Americans over 65--a number that will double by 2030--that takes a big imagination indeed.
Standing over 6 feet tall with a bushy brown beard, Thomas is typically dressed in old fleece outerwear, jeans, and Birkenstocks. At a recent conference on aging where he was a keynote speaker, Thomas conceded to convention by exchanging the fleece for a linen sports jacket, but he's been known to deliver a talk in overalls while standing on top of a table.