The Harvard Doctor Changing Nursing Homes Forever

A Harvard trained physician, Dr. Bill Thomas, wants people to realize one thing about aging and life: “growing older is a good thing!”

Dr. Bill was in the news recently because of his positive perspective about aging. In the Washington Post article, Dr. Bill explained that it is vital to replace negative attitudes about aging and he wants to help people to see “post-adulthood” as an enriching time. Thomas feels that Americans fear the idea of aging. This notion leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy of isolation, loneliness, and lack of autonomy.

In 1991, Dr. Thomas became the medical director of a nursing home in upstate New York. He found the place dull and dispirited. And he wanted to change that depressing feeling and in doing so improve the resident’s lives. So he converted the nursing home into something new and exciting. With the support of his staff, he placed two dogs, four cats, 100 parakeets, and some rabbits and hens along with some plant varieties, a vegetable and flower garden, and a day-care site for the employees’ children.

Of course, that many animals in the nursing home broke state law. But for Thomas and his team, it was a breakthrough. People are wired to care. So when residents were given the opportunity to care for plant and animals, their spirits and autonomy improved. Many of them started dressing, leaving their rooms, and eating again. Over time, the number of prescriptions dropped to half of that of a control nursing home, in particular for drugs that manage agitation. Death rates fell, and so did costs related to medication.

Dr. Thomas named the approach the Eden Alternative. He believes that a nursing home should be more like a garden and less like a hospital. Thomas’s idea was replicated by institutions in Japan, Canada, Europe, Australia, and in all 50 U.S. states. The animal restraint in New York was lifted.

The doctor also pioneered private, small residences that he calls Green Houses. In the Green Houses, residents have individual bedrooms and bathrooms. As a result: “Within six weeks, they had to send a truck around to pick up all the wheelchairs,” Thomas reported the Post. “You know why most people [in nursing homes] use wheelchairs? Because the buildings are so damn big.”

Age is just a number. What people need most is loving contact throughout our lives, whether from people or animals. It’s important to note that our minds and spirit play a significant role in our longevity and happiness.


Image Source: Dr. Bill Thomas, a geriatrician and theater performer who is traveling the country trying to change people’s attitudes about aging, is photographed during a workshop at Gilchrest Hospice in Hunt Valley, Md. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

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