The Greening of Aging
William Thomas | physician, farmer
The success of the Eden Alternative launched Thomas's career in aging. He quickly trained three other New York State homes in his philosophy and then set about creating a nonprofit to disseminate his ideas. The author of five books, Thomas maintains a regular writing schedule. Most mornings, he has breakfast at D&D's Diner in Sherburne, which serves him "the Doc"--a cheese omelet with well-done home fries and toast. He opens his laptop and starts writing. His most recent book, What Are Old People For? draws on sources as diverse as Shakespearean sonnets and Greek philosophy and returns (as Thomas always does) to the firmly rooted idea that old age is no accident. Thomas says, "People of all ages will live better lives when we succeed in bringing elders back to the heart of our society."
A popular public speaker, Thomas travels from his home 35 or 40 times a year. It's a busy schedule for a man who is also helping to raise five kids under the age of 17, serving as an AARP visiting scholar, running a working farm, and overseeing several nonprofits. The glue that keeps Thomas's life together is his wife, Jude. She rules a sprawling farmhouse that blends old and new in surprising ways. A wood-burning stove heats every room, but the electricity is provided by solar panels and a wind generator. Sunlight warms the knotty pine walls, and everyone eats dinner together by candlelight. Also on hand is a nurse. The Thomases' two daughters, Hannah and Haleigh, were born with a medical condition that means they'll never see or move with intention. What they experience is a mystery, but the Thomases say the girls have deepened their understanding of elder care. In fact, his book In the Arms of Elders: A Parable of Wise Leadership and Community Building re-imagines his daughters as wise old women who teach him and Jude about the true plagues of old age--loneliness, helplessness, and boredom.
The next few years will be key in reimagining how nursing homes look in the future. Steve McAlilly, CEO of Mississippi Methodist Senior Services, was about to build a 140-bed, state-of-the-art facility when he had a talk with Thomas about Green House. "Intuitively I knew it was the answer we were searching for," says McAlilly. "I went to the board of directors and told them we were about to make a $12 million mistake."
Together, McAlilly and Thomas managed to persuade the board to instead build 10 separate houses, each with private bedrooms and bathrooms arrayed around a "hearth room" with an open kitchen. Seniors would be free to eat at any time they wanted, participate in all house decisions, and generally make themselves at home. Nurse's aides--the caregivers who work most closely with the elders--would have greater authority and would serve many functions, including cooking family-style meals.
Big picture. It was a typical Bill Thomas idea--simple, intuitive, and emotionally resonant but also perhaps somewhat lacking in detail. Moving 140 seniors, many demented or with Alzheimer's, into 10 separate houses while still following state regulations was not so simple. "Little did we know at the time that the idea wasn't fleshed out very well, and we would become the organization that would help him flesh it out," says McAlilly.