'Superstar' on aging

By Tanika White

After graduating from Harvard Medical School, Dr. Bill Thomas – exhausted from the pace of emergency room shifts – took a part-time job in a nursing home, thinking he could catch up on some nap time.

Instead, the experience awakened in Thomas a desire to help the “elders” who had been relegated to nursing homes – places that he thought to be, by and large, cold, solitary and regimented.

“When I went to work at the nursing home,” he said, “I quickly discovered I could make life better for each and every person I was taking care of.

“Because their problems didn’t have to do with their medications. Their three biggest problems were loneliness, helplessness and boredom. Once I understood that, it changed my life.”

Thomas, 48, founded the Eden Alternative, a movement to de-institutionalize nursing homes by drawing more sunlight, pets and plants into them and providing more freedom to residents. He’s also the driving force behind the Green House, a cutting-edge version of a nursing home that looks and feels more like a house. With his blessing, Baltimore is on its way to getting Maryland’s first Green Houses in 2011 – one of 129 such projects planned to open nationwide in the next few years.

When it comes to aging issues, he has been called a visionary, a culture-changer and a prophet. And last week, he became simply Professor Thomas.

On Thursday, Thomas began teaching “Aging 100: You Say You Want a Revolution,” for freshmen at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Erickson School on Aging, Management and Policy.

The class, which he helped develop, is experimental. Only about 15 to 20 students will attend the inaugural course. But UMBC administrators think that the eventual reach of the class will be far greater.

“Among experts on aging, Bill Thomas is a superstar,” said UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III. “[He] is one of the most thought-provoking scholars in this field. … And he is serving as a kind of magnet in attracting people to the Erickson School and to the Baltimore area.”

William H. Thomas, M.D. is a study in contrasts: Harvard medical school graduate, dairy cow farmer. Geriatrician, globe-trotter. Hemp-shirt-wearer, movement-starter.

Thomas, who lives in Ithaca, N.Y., with his wife and five children, ages 9 to 19, will travel to the campus every other week to teach. He will live quietly at an airport hotel, away from all the city’s attractions, so he can focus on “thinking, talking and writing.”

“I have the ability to let my mind race with wild abandon,” said Thomas, who slips out of his Birckenstocks and wriggles his toes under a conference table during a recent interview. “And I have the ability to concentrate on one thing for hours on end.”

Those qualities will be important in his newest challenges: the Erickson School and the aging class. “Because we’re starting a school from scratch, I get to spend a lot of time developing courses, developing new ideas,” he said.

Thomas is rarely short on ideas. Even while engaged in one activity, his mind often is churning about something else.

Jeff Shireman, president of Lebanon Valley Brethren Home, a senior-care community in Palmyra, Pa., recalled Thomas doodling on a paper tablecloth during a discussion with Green House organizers.

“I glanced over … . He was solving differential calculus equations. So there’s this brilliance there – but also a quirkiness,” Shireman said.

Thomas’ brilliant quirkiness is a much sought-after combination. His speaking engagements command upward of $10,000. An entire province – Denmark’s Faroe Islands – has officially adopted his aging views. Last month, he appeared before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, imploring senators “to put elders back at the center of our system.”

This is a key theme of Thomas’ personal and professional life. And it’s been a long time in the making.

After working in the nursing home in 1991, Thomas switched to geriatrics, opening a practice.

He and his wife, Judith Meyers-Thomas, then started the Eden Alternative, which began by bringing parakeets into patients’ rooms in one nursing home, and has now been infused into more than 300 nursing homes in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia. The idea is to make long-term care settings for older people more like gardens – habitats for living things – than sterile medical institutions.

“Some people have called him a prophet, and I would certainly agree with that,” said Doug Pace of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. “He’s the one who said, ‘Hey, we can do this differently.'”

Thomas then took his transforming principles from large institutions into small, home-like settings.

The first Green House opened in 2004 in Tupelo, Miss. Since then, 41 others have opened, and with $15 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, groups plan additional models in 20 states, including four at Stadium Place in Northeast Baltimore, which will be run by the Govans Ecumenical Development Corp.

Mitch Posner, executive director of GEDCO, recalled that when he started at the nonprofit after 30 years in real estate, someone handed him a copy of In the Arms of Elders: A Parable of Wise Leadership and Community Building, and said, “This is what you need to read.”

The author: Bill Thomas.

The expansion of Green Houses is the responsibility of NCB Capital Impact, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit. A major selling point for the group: Thomas’ “ideas, audacity and optimism,”

“We’d been doing work in this area to create alternatives to nursing homes,” NCB’s Robert Jenkens, director of the Green House Project, said, adding that most people thought dramatic change was hopeless. “Bill came along and said nursing homes aren’t hopeless. It’s not the people, it’s the system.”

Thomas is determined to build once again on his concepts – this time to change not just one nursing home, or even all of them, but the entire aging system. He wants older people to have more choices about their lives, more autonomy and a valued place in our society.

Thomas believes baby boomers will play a significant role in changing how aging is viewed in this country. But he is passionate about mining classrooms for leaders to transform the system.

“There is not enough money in America to buy services for every older person in the baby boom generation,” he said. “So we have to help people become more comfortable relying on each other.” His classroom at the Erickson School will be different. He and UMBC professor Judah Ronch, who is co-teaching the class, will pepper their coursework with reggae music, Monty Python clips, Hollywood icons, medieval art. Thomas’ iPhone will act as a timer to ensure short lectures. Classes will be broadcast on YouTube.

There will be no book.

But there doesn’t need to be. The man who is writing the next chapter on aging will be up front, wearing jeans every day and slipping his sandals off at the podium.

Dr. Bill Thomas

Age: 48

Family: Wife, Judith Meyers-Thomas and five children, ages 9 to 19

Home: Ithaca, N.Y.

Education: M.D., Harvard Medical School

Occupation: geriatrician, aging expert

Experience: Helped found the Eden Alternative, a movement to deinstitutionalize nursing homes, and Green House, which aims for a more home-like feel. Has developed and is teaching a fall course on aging at UMBC’s Erickson School on Aging, Management and Policy.

Quote: “The challenge is getting students to see past the status quo, to see the field as a kind of opportunity rather than a dead end of society.”

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