[Editors note — this is the piece of a 12-part feature by The Wall Street Journal profiling “pioneers who are shaping the way Americans will live, work and play in later life.”]
Number Twelve — Reinventing the Nursing Home
The spark for William Thomas’s work came in 1991 while treating a patient in an upstate New York nursing home. “She grabbed my arm, pulled me down over the bed, looked in my eyes and said, ‘I’m so lonely,’ ” he recalls.
To revitalize the place, he opened the doors to children, brought in parakeets, cats and dogs, and plowed up the grounds for a garden. The effort grew into the Eden Alternative, a nonprofit that has helped more than 500 nursing homes across the country shift their focus to their residents’ emotional well-being and away from institutional scheduling.
Today, Dr. Thomas is widely regarded as a leader in efforts nationwide to bring humanity to the end of life. In 1999, while touring the country to promote the Eden Alternative’s work and a novel about aging, “I realized that America’s nursing homes are getting older faster than we are,” he says.
Accordingly, he developed the idea of replacing traditional nursing homes with “Green Houses,” cozier facilities centered on big kitchens with technology-laden bedrooms and nursing aides who also serve as housekeepers and companions. To date, there are 35 Green House projects; the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is helping fund an expansion of the program.
For his next act, Dr. Thomas, 48, wants to become “the Dr. Spock of aging.”
“The boomers are creeping toward elderhood, and I aim to help explain [the] terrain,” he says. “The ‘new’ old age [is] a time of strength and growth and development and engagement.”
— By Kelly Greene, The Wall Street Journal
[Photo courtesy of Jim Harrison]