Activist author touts ERs designed especially for elderly

June 1, 2012
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Geriatrician Dr. William Thomas is intent on scrapping nursing homes and hospital emergency rooms’ typical procedures for senior adults. He believes too many of them fail to treat senior adults in ways that are best for them.

“The conventional practice in nursing homes is centered on disease and decline,” said the Harvard Medical School-trained physician. “(And) if you look at the typical American emergency room, it is the exact opposite of everything for older people. It’s loud and jumbled, the surfaces are hard, and the lights are glaring.”

To help shepherd what he believes is a better way, Thomas founded two international nonprofits, The Eden Alternative and The Green House Project, aimed at revolutionizing nursing homes. A handful of his initiatives can be found in Michigan and in Grand Rapids.

Trinity Health, a faith-based organization of community hospitals, outpatient centers, long-term care and hospice programs throughout Michigan and in a handful of other states, has partnered with Thomas to reinvent the emergency room for seniors in 12 of its hospitals.

Thomas believes senior emergency departments need to be designed to reduce anxiety, confusion and the risk of falling with the use of softer lighting and colors, noise reduction features, handrails and non-reflective flooring to reduce missteps.

“And very importantly, you have to change the attitude people have toward older patients,” said Thomas. He was in Grand Rapids recently at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel for the sixth Eden Alternative International Conference, which drew more than 500 people from around the world. “There’s a bias against older patients that they are in some ways a waste of time,” he said.

Thomas founded The Eden Alternative in 1994 to deinstitutionalize long-term care facilities by alleviating the “three plagues” of boredom, helplessness and loneliness. His initiative calls for fundamental changes in the relationship between staff and management and integrates pets, gardens and children to nursing homes.

His Green House Project also is an effort to deinstitutionalize nursing homes with small homes that provide a full range of personal care and clinical services that nursing institutions provide. Such homes make it possible for the elderly to enjoy an excellent quality of life where they can engage staff and family in meaningful relationships, Thomas said.

“The idea is that people benefit from living in environments that are small and warm and comfortable, and where they can maintain their privacy and dignity and not be subjected to a lifelong institution,” said Thomas.

Michigan has 34 Eden Alternative-registered nursing homes and four Green House Projects, including Porter Hills Retirement Communities and Services in Grand Rapids.

Thomas said he believes the Western world’s attitude toward aging will continue to have far-reaching implications for businesses, the health care industry and society at large.

His No. 1 concern about the post-war, baby boom generation is that they are in denial about aging. “I’m concerned they have attitudes of aging that are exclusively negative, and as a result I’m concerned these people are going to have a negative influence on society. I see a contest between people in denial, and people who are open to exploring a new kind of old age.”

Thomas’ self-ascribed monikers include social activist, eldercare reformer, mixed-power farmer, musician, playwright, nursing home abolitionist and author. His novel, “Tribes of Eden” was released April 2, which is a sequel to his 1999 work of fiction, “In the Arms of Elders.”

“Tribes” uses a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world to demonstrate how trust, community and wisdom can overcome even the most tyrannical power to repair a broken world. Thomas said the novel introduces a new vision of old age.

“I wanted to write a thriller that’s interesting and fun to read where older people play a critical, vital role in saving the world,” he said. “It’s much better to grow old in a society that respects elders than a society that denies and demeans aging.”

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