The Greening of Aging
William Thomas | physician, farmer
It's an outsider image he uses to his advantage. "A person who is well trained as an expert can be surprisingly unprepared to act as a leader," says Thomas. But he's an outsider who makes others want to come out and join the party. In almost any group, he's the center of attention with a booming voice, infectious laugh, and gift for storytelling. "He's so dynamic and energetic," says Barry Batzing, professor of biological sciences at the State University of New York Cortland, who taught Thomas as an undergraduate. "He talks with you for five minutes and could probably get you to do anything."
Yet for a long time, all Thomas wanted was to be left alone. After medical school, the young resident bought a farm in upstate New York, and later he and his wife, Jude, built a small house that ran entirely on solar and wind power. "I wanted to be alone on top of the hill," says Thomas. That's perhaps not surprising for someone who was raised along a creek in New York's Appalachia in a house surrounded by those of his relatives. As a youth, Thomas had to overcome low expectations; because he came from a family of tradesmen, he was not expected to go to college. But he won a scholarship to SUNY-Cortland, where his leadership skills emerged. He created a student-run system to evaluate professors, and he challenged the procedure by which the housing department penalized students for dorm room damage.
In 1991, he was pressed into service as medical director of a nursing home, called Chase, and found himself forced to engage with a strange system. "People are trained and required to operate a nursing home like a well-oiled machine. Follow the rules; obey the budget," says Thomas. The residents were woken up at the same time for the convenience of shift change and feeding schedules. It was a total institution imposed upon a group of elders whose only crime was having grown old.
Meanwhile, "I was living up here at the farm, keeping a garden, and chopping firewood," recalls Thomas. "I would get on my bike and ride to the nursing home, and then that whole living world would be gone. It was an immense conflict for me." And so Thomas imagined a world like his made possible for his seniors. "What we want are gardens that grow people," says Thomas. Mary Jane Koren, a senior program officer at the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation that makes health-related grants, recalls meeting Thomas when she worked for the state. "I stopped in this 80-bed nursing home, and suddenly this guy with a great bushy beard and sandals comes running up to me." Back at the office, Koren received Thomas's proposal to give every Chase resident a parakeet, populate the home with cats and dogs, and plow up the manicured front lawn for an organic garden. "Everyone said, 'This is nuts,'" recalls Koren. But it was also something no one there had ever seen before. The result was the first Eden Alternative. According to a study by the New York State Health Department, after Eden, the home experienced a 50 percent decrease in infection, 71 percent dip in daily drug costs for each resident, and a 26 percent drop in nurse's aide turnover.