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The Dr. Bill Thomas Interview
An Interview with Dr. Bill Thomas
What is the difference between the Eden
Alternative and the Green House Model?
Bill Thomas: The Eden Alternative
is really based on helping people where
they are, with the stuff they have, in
the building they own. The Green House
is, what I like to call, the Eden
Alternative on a clean sheet of paper.
So if you have the time, the ability,
and the capability to start over, the
Green House is the way that you want to
go. The Green House allows you to
integrate the architecture,
organizational structure, and the
culture right from the beginning.
I remember, late last century, going
into one of the first Eden Alternative
Nursing Homes and what sticks with me is
putting a bunny rabbit in the lap of a
frail lady who was in a wheelchair.
She did not look like she was at all
cognizant of where she was, but she lit
up and started stroking the bunny
rabbit. Nothing makes you more viable
than to care about another creature. How
did you come up with that?
Bill Thomas: The most
basic insight is that human beings have
an aching need for connection. No matter
how old we are, no matter what our
health status is, we need to connect.
And when we find ourselves living in
environments, unable to connect with
other living things—human, animal,
children, plant—when we cannot connect
our lives to others, we wither away. And
so I think the most foundational insight
is that old age is a team sport. We were
made to grow old in the context of a
community, in the context of caring
relationships, in the context of
belonging. And to say, as some people
do, that “independence is the hallmark
of old age” is just not only false, but
Gary Barg: Your new book, “Second Wind,”
is one of those rare books that I could
not put down once I picked it up.
Bill Thomas: Wow.
What brought you to write this book?
Bill Thomas: I think
it is time for a new story about this
part of life. My previous work with
elders led me to see just how ugly and
limiting the conventional narrative is.
I know from my work, my practice, and my
experience that there is another story
waiting to be told. I realized that in
order to tell it, I had to retell the
story of a generation to help explain
how we got where we are, and what we can
do to change our own shared, collective
I was intrigued when you started
following four characters, Tom, Melanie,
Rita and Flo. You had one chapter
dedicated to each of the years 1961,
1971 and 1981 and what was going on in
these people’s lives. Since I was alive
during these years, I could actually
place myself in the storyline as well. I
think that was a really great tool to be
able to plant the reader into the story.
Bill Thomas: Thank
you. I think that comes from my
background as a physician. If you
are taking care of a patient, you are
not taking care of the patient until you
know their story. You cannot take care
of the patient until you know their
story. And I felt like in this book, it
was my attempt, if I can put it this
way, to take care of the post-war
generation. And we have to revisit their
story. It had to be done.
So this just plants it right into the
life of the stereotypical caregiver.
Bill Thomas: Well, you
and I share a very deep faith and
loyalty in the active caregiver. I
really wanted to normalize the
intergenerational exchange and to
prepare us for that wheel to keep right
on turning in what can be an even
I always end these
conversations with what I call the
elevator speech. You get on an elevator
with a family caregiver, and you have
about a minute before you walk off and
probably never see this family again.
In that amount of time, what would be
the most important piece of information
you would like to share with them?
Bill Thomas: The most
important thing is that you are not
alone, that you are part of an ancient
human experience where we give and
receive, at different times and in
different ways. This process of giving
and receiving is an important part of
what makes us human. Before I left the
elevator, I would say I know the
difficulties well, but do not forget to
enjoy the richness and goodness that
comes with caregiving. And I would shake
their hands and leave the elevator
hoping they had seen a glimpse of that
great human drama; for ultimately, we
are all each other’s caregivers and
always have been.
Well, I think that is a lucky family to
have been in that elevator with you.