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Nobody is excited to be in a nursing home. Same deal for most nurses. In a terrible turn of events, a place with exploding need for professional nursing care is the most maligned of places to work. And if you’ve spent time in one, visiting an elder or maybe a loved one enduring a long recovery, you know why. It’s dense with suffering. Everyone in their own personal purgatories. And the food is yuck.

Borrowed from a chapter in Gawande’s Being Mortal and continuing the theme of the poem “Letters from a Father,” I wanted show off the work of Dr. Bill Thomas, who has gained regard for transforming the nursing home. The man has an earth shattering philosophy: In order to thrive, humans (even sick and old humans!) need something to live for. Life needs meaning. His first nursing home experiment brought in pets of all sort: birds, a variety of house plants, some dogs and cats. The residents were given autonomy, responsibility, and credit to care for them. And the residents thrived (so did the animals and, miraculously, the houseplants) Now you see the connection with “Letters.” Now I’m weepy because it is so simple, people. The needs of humans are beautifully simple.

Dr. Thomas, hippie in the most beneficent understanding of the term, calls his program The Eden Alternative:

What are the other components, what are the other criteria of the Eden Alternative?

Number one, the organization begins to treat the staff they way they want the staff to treat the elders. Very important. Long-term care has a bad history of treating its staff one way, not so nice, and expecting the staff to treat the elders a different way.

Number two, the organization brings decision making back to the elders and to the people around the elders, so that they have a voice in their, in their daily routine and their life. Crucial, crucial to re-injecting meaning into peoples’ lives.

Third, they’ve taken real steps to make the place where people live rich in plants and animals and children. I want the people to be confused when they walk through the door. What kind of place is this? I mean, there’s kids running around and playing and there’s dogs and there’s cats and there’s birds, and there’s gardens and plants and … I want them to be confused. This can’t be a nursing home. Right. It’s an alternative to the nursing home.

And finally, there has to be a commitment to ongoing growth. We believe in the Eden Alternative that even the frailest, most demented, most feeble elder can grow. And that the young person who maybe has a difficult home life or is living on the edge of poverty, they can grow. That the organization commits itself to human growth. And those words, human growth, nursing home, they’ve never gone together before and with Eden Alternative they can.
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From a resident:

“Well, if I want to make things easy and comfortable for everybody, the only thing I should do is die. And having George participate in my care and having other people do the same, calls me into life. It says, despite your losses, despite your limitations, you belong here with us and we want you to stay.” — Nancy Mairs

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2 thoughts on “Dr. Bill Thomas, aging, and de-depressing the nursing home

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