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The Dr. Bill Thomas Interview

An Interview with Dr. Bill Thomas

Gary Barg:  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.

Gary Barg:  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 dangerously false.

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.

Gary Barg:  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 future.

Gary Barg:  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.

Gary Barg:  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 healthier way.

Gary Barg:  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.

Gary Barg:  Well, I think that is a lucky family to have been in that elevator with you.