Published in Woonsocket Call on May 8, 2016
By Herb Weiss
Internationally- acclaimed aging expert Dr. Bill Thomas and musical guest Nate Silas Richardson come to the Ocean State to offer an entertaining and highly disruptive exploration of aging at the Park Theatre, 848 Park Ave., Cranston, RI 02910 —from 2:30 to 4:30 PM and 7:00 to 8:30 PM on Thursday May 19, 2016, as part of The Age of Disruption Tour.
Dr. Thomas says that his message is quite simple – transitioning into later life should not be spent in “frenzied disharmony.” To play “life’s most dangerous game” successfully “we need to reimagine and create clear and satisfying purpose to how we spend the rest of our lives,” he adds.
Over 25 years ago, Thomas, a 31-year-old physician who was less than two years out of family residency, took a job as medical director of a nursing facility with 80 severely disabled residents. Ultimately the Harvard-trained physician would put together a program in the facility in Upper New York that advocated a shifting away from the institutional model of care to one that is person-directed. .
Thomas recalled, “The place was depressing, with old people parked in wheelchairs like frogs on a log, bored with nothing to do, just waiting for death to finally reach them. It was horrible.”
So the young physician made unthinkable changes to care plans. He persuaded the facility and staff to get two dogs, four cats, several hens and rabbits, and 100 parakeets, along with hundreds of plants, a vegetable and flower garden, and a day-care site for staffers’ kids. At the time, there were laws prohibiting animals in nursing homes. They went ahead anyway.
Thomas’s unorthodox methods had astounding results. Dr. Atal Gawande detailed the impact in his 2014 best-selling book Being Mortal. The residents started caring for the plants and animals, and this restored their spirits and their interest in doing things. Many started taking better care of themselves, venturing out of their rooms and eating and interacting with people again. Prescription drug use was reduced 50 percent, particularly for drugs utilized to reduce anxiety and agitation. Medication costs plummeted, and so did the death rate.
Meanwhile, New York and other states changed the law to allow animals in old age homes and facilities. At some facilities, trucks were hired to take away the accumulations of wheelchairs that were no longer being used.
In 1991, Thomas and his wife Judith Meyers-Thomas co-founded a non-profit called The Eden Alternative to share what they had learned in New York. Today, The Eden Alternatives’ primary mission has expanded to provide education and training to care providers working in home care, community-based care like adult day programs, meals on wheels, senior centers, and, retirement communities, assisted living and nursing homes. “More than 30,000 people worldwide have participated in Eden education including all 50 states and 13 countries. There are currently more than 200 organizations who are members of the Eden Alternative registry,” he says, noting that 13 countries have organizations active in the Eden Alternative movement.
“The idea that care is about helping someone to grow – not just treating illness or injury — touches people in a fundamental way,” Thomas says. Traditional approaches to care tend to focus solely on the human body, while The Eden Alternative philosophy seeks to improve well-being for the whole person. This includes having a sense of purpose and a voice and choice regarding our own care. In 1991,
Since 1991, Thomas’ paradigm shift in care philosophy, to reduce loneliness, helplessness and boredom, has truly become an international movement
On the Road
Thomas formally stepped down as President of The Eden Alternative board in 2014 but is still deeply connected to the movement, notes Kavan Peterson, director of Thomas’ latest project, the 2016 Age of Disruption Tour. For instance, Thomas keynoted the 8th Eden International Conference on May 2 in Little Rock, Arkansas, he says.
The Age of Disruption Tour features Thomas’ signature “non-fiction theater” performance called “Aging: Life’s Most Dangerous Game.” Dr. Thomas has performed in 65 cities in 28 states since 2014, says Peterson. “We’ve had just over 20,000 tickets sold,” he says, noting that the 2016 tour will go to 35 cities, including five stops in Canada and stopovers in the United Kingdom next December.
The tour came about when he heard AARP CEO JoAnn Jenkins in 2014 declare her intentions to launch a “disrupt aging” movement aimed at inspiring people to embrace their age and open their eyes to the possibilities and opportunities that come with aging, notes Thomas. “I had recently been dabbling in harnessing the power of the arts — theater, music, live performance — as a tool for social change. I launched the Age of Disruption Tour with the support of AARP to champion the concept of disrupting aging at the local grassroots level. The movement has grown and expanded from there,” he says.
The 2016 tour expanded to include an afternoon educational workshop called “Disrupt Dementia.”
The purpose of the workshop is to directly challenge the tragedy narrative people associate with Alzheimer’s disease and provide an educational experience that opens the audience’s eyes to the possibility of living well with memory loss, says Peterson. You will find the workshop highly theatrical as well– there is a film, a live music concert, and even the workshop section is designed to reach people in an emotional level. “This is an important element to the show to provide an immersive experience for the attendees to open their hearts in order to open their minds to new ways of thinking about aging, he adds.”
Peterson says the Age of Disruption Tour, whose local tour stop is sponsored by PACE and AARP, has had a positive impact on the audience. One attendee said, “It was elegant, warm, and exquisitely-produced. Every single detail. The love was palpable.” Another noted: “Dr. Thomas’ tour not only created a platform to have these inspired conversations, but brought together music, theatre, and play to remind [us] that living life to the fullest is an ageless concept.”
The tour has also had a lasting impact on communities, says Peterson. “In Portland Oregon, the city’s Age Friendly initiative organized a year-long public outreach campaign called “What are Old People For” based on Dr. Thomas’ book of the same name. In other cities the events have helped boost local coalitions ranging from supporting Age Friendly City movements, the Village to Village Network, and, the Eden Alternative movements, book clubs and consciousness raising groups, he notes.
A Good Fit for AARP Rhode Island
“AARP enjoys working with Bill Thomas, for many reasons. Chief among them is his innovative and entertaining approach to getting people to think differently about age and aging,” observed AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “Age is something that happens to all of us. But Bill always finds new ways to inspire people to look at age through a different, more positive and affirmative lens. Society is stubbornly negative about aging, equating it with decline. It’s a notion so pervasive that people have come to believe it. Turning that around is what the tour is all about and it’s a good fit with that AARP is doing to disrupt aging,” Connell says.
“An expression that is getting traction is ‘own your age,” Connell added. “Essentially, it means that people should forget about assumptions and prejudices assigned to age. Turning 50 does not make you old. Turning 60 does not mean you’ve peaked. Turning 70 doesn’t make you anything. Owning your age is about you and the life you have chosen to live – not what people think of when they think of a number, she notes.
Ticket Information: $15 per show $30 for both https://drbillthomas.org/local/