A couple months ago, I spent my very last day on the job at UMBC with a special guest — Childs Walker, higher education reporter for The Baltimore Sun. I brought Childs to UMBC to meet the Erickson School’s amazing faculty, students and alumni.
Childs’ story ran on the front page of the Sun last week, and I think it does a brilliant job summing-up what the Erickson School is all about:
UMBC’s Erickson School teaches students to look at aging in new way
By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun
Baltimore Sun reporter
Elsa Lundgren beams as she stands in the archway between her bedroom and living room.
She used to live in a single, hospital-like room on the assisted-living floor at Broadmead retirement community in Hunt Valley. But after a renovation, she now has a sitting room with a flat-screen TV, a small kitchen, a bathroom with a walk-in shower and, most important to her, several large windows that give her plenty of light.
“My eyesight was getting poorer and poorer,” says the 96- year-old, who has lived at Broadmead for 18 years. “It was the light that persuaded me to go forward with the move.”
The update is exactly the sort of reform that the professors at UMBC’s Erickson School of Aging are hoping to inspire. A year after budget and staff cuts had some concerned about the school’s future, Erickson is educating 31 graduate students, its largest group ever, and alumni are beginning to use what they’ve learned to reshape the world of aging.
The changes at Broadmead, for example, might never have happened if CEO Rich Compton and six of his employees had not attended the Erickson school’s master’s program.
Compton had run Broadmead for almost 20 years when he enrolled. In class one day, he bristled when Professor Bill Thomas said the home was managing the “decline” of residents rather than offering comfortable places to expand and use their skills.
“You get stuck in this way of thinking that you’re always doing God’s work,” he says. “Then, somebody is suddenly telling you, you’re not. You can blow them off or you can say well, maybe there’s a way we canintegrate what he’s saying.”
The minds behind the Erickson school, founded in 2004 with a $5 million gift from Catonsville-based Erickson Retirement Services, want to change the way we think about aging in this country. In their vision, older people would be encouraged to work longer, and their wisdom would be regarded as a precious societal resource. They would live in private rooms, eat fresh, interesting food and come and go at their discretion.
In fact, these experts believe baby boomers, who began hitting age 62 in 2008, will demand such changes. Unlike their parents, boomers are used to space, independence and, perhaps most importantly, the power to buy whatever they want. They have transformed every institution with which they have had contact, and elder care will be no different, the experts say.
“Aging is the biggest domestic story of the next 50 years,” says Thomas, a geriatrician from upstate New York and one of the stars of Erickson’s faculty. “We’re going to be living in an America that gets older every year for the rest of our lives.”
Thomas criticizes the institutional feel of most American nursing homes. The “Greenhouse” approach he developed, in place at Baltimore’s Stadium Place and other locations, groups older people in communities of no more than 10. They live in private rooms but gather to make home-cooked meals and tend the garden.
It’s an excellent, in-depth article, but I also want to highlight my favorite part of the day. I love that Childs’ capture it so well:
The reality of death
It’s a Friday afternoon in late April and Thomas is asking the master’s students to do something unusual. “Write ‘I am going to die,’ and keep it in front of you as we talk,” he says.
Thomas expects the phrase to send chills up the students’ spines, to stop them short. His point is that until they grapple with the basic truth about their own mortality, they won’t get past hang-ups that prevent them from helping older people to prepare for death.
Thomas believes that many physicians fight an unhealthy war with death to the point of sacrificing patients’ comfort and dignity. Some even withdraw from dying patients because they don’t want to confront the unbeatable enemy. Nursing homes routinely wheel dead residents out the back door, refill their rooms as quickly as possible and wipe away their seats in the dining room as if they were never there.
Read the full story here or download a pdf.
Click here for more information on the Erickson School