By Debbie Gardner
What if our perception of aging gets it all wrong?
If our fear of growing – or appearing – older is essentially manufactured, and misplaced?
“The biggest thing we’ve learned [from our performances] is that most people equate aging with decline, “ said Dr. Bill Thomas, founder of the Changing Aging tour, which made a stop at the Jewish Geriatric Services (JGS) Lifecare in Longmeadow on June 12.
But what if, Thomas observed, this image of growing older as a decline is simply a product of how America’s youth-oriented culture chooses to look at aging?
He explained the concept to Prime in this way:
“There are things in the world we humans can’t do anything about. Take gravity – I don’t care what you want to do you can’t change it.
“Aging is different,” Thomas said. “There’s a part of it written into our biology, but the biggest part of it is cultural; really, how we talk about it is a story. The idea of aging as bad, as decline, I would say it is more of a Western idea than an Eastern idea. It is really something you find in societies more focused on performance and less focused on relationships,” he observed.
In other words, we often evaluate how someone is aging with phrases such as “And he (or she) can still ….” instead of valuing the hard-won wisdom and life lessons they can share.
One man’s crusade
The respected geriatrician and author of several books on aging knows all too well of what he speaks. The 1980s graduate of Harvard Medical School altered his emergency medicine career plans towards geriatrics when a part-time stint as director of a small nursing home brought him face-to-face with the state of elder care in America. That experience led Thomas and his wife to launch his Eden Alternative in the 1990s, a concept that sought to deinstitutionalized nursing homes by bringing plants, animals and a homelike, patient centered atmosphere to long-term care. He’s also spearheaded the Senior ER model, designed to make emergency room care more elder-responsive and friendly. His most recent eldercare innovation, the Green House® – a small house care model – is one that the JGS chose when planning its Sosin Center for Rehabilitation.
“Dr. Thomas is kind of a legendary figure in the eldercare field,” Martin Baicker, JGS president and CEO told Prime, adding that he is “very proud” that Sosin is one of only 230 GreenHouse® concept care facilities in the U. S., and the only one in Western Massachusetts.
Baicker said JGS’s decision to invite Thomas and his Changing Aging tour to Longmeadow was twofold – to give his staff an opportunity to get insight and training about the GreenHouse® care model from the expert, and to promote Thomas’s innovate philosophy about aging.
“We brought him in for the community,” Baicker said. “We think it is our responsibility to educate the community about different issues.”
The doctor as performer
A standing-room only crowd of nearly 200 came to hear the man U. S. News calls “one of the top 10 innovators” in the country present his case for changing how we look at aging, which he and his troupe of performers did through performances, songs, and theater.
“The audience was dancing and singing,” Thomas said. “It was a packed house.”
Thomas said the reaction was a normal one from elders, who “deeply appreciate the story we are telling.” He also brings the performances to younger audiences, such as the college stops on his current tour, to help them begin thinking about the aging process.
“I think if you were to take our whole campaign and performance and boil it down to two words, it would be “Disrupt Aging” – it’s time to challenge some of the ideas people have about age and provide people with some new perspectives,” Thomas said. “I spent 23 years on the faculty of a medical school and I’ve given a lot of lectures in my day. Medical students will sit still for your lectures, but grownups need entertainment and education – something we call edutainment.
“I am OK with entertainment as a part of learning,” Thomas said of his current road show. “The audiences that come to see us are appreciative that the aren’t getting a doctor in a white coat with a PowerPoint. They are getting something much more enjoyable and much more powerful.”
A revolution doesn’t always start with speeches and protest. Sometimes it starts with a song, or a poem.
“There are a lot of different ways to change the world and a lot of people who are changing the world. In our case we think art and music and theater and storytelling are what we have available to get people to think differently about aging,” he added.
Aging is not illness
The 2017 edition of the Changing Aging tour takes two of aging’s most fearsome topics – death and memory loss – head-on in the performances “Life’s Most Dangerous Game” and “Disrupting Dementia.”
“Dementia is not aging, it is a brain condition,” Thomas explained. “It is important we distinguish aging from clinical conditions, which are terrible.”
Aging, on the other hand, isn’t a condition that needs a “cure,” Thomas said, because it is “a normal part of how we develop across the decades.”
To “change aging,” Thomas said, society needs to acknowledge there is a developmental stage to life beyond adulthood, called elderhood.
“One of the chief causes of suffering for healthy older people is the notion that they need to remain adults forever, but there is actually life beyond adulthood,” Thomas said. “There is actually a way to outgrow adulthood just as you outgrow childhood.”
This is a difficult concept for a society where adulthood equates with influence, Thomas said.
“A lot of people cling to adulthood – to status and prestige and things and power – because they believe if they lose their position as adults they have nothing left,” Thomas said. However, “There’s a lot of new things to learn about how to live as a person of influence.
“To retire from full-time employment should be seen as an invitation to a new area of growth as an elder,” he continued. A part of this growth involves “shifting your focus from a large number of superficial relationships to a smaller number of healthy relationships” – often with family members and grandchildren.
Becoming an ‘elder’
Embracing elderhood also requires people to redefine what constitutes purpose in life, shifting from doing to advising, Thomas said.
“Being needed is important at every point in life. Older people want and need to be needed just as young people want and need to be needed,” Thomas said.
Another aspect of healthy elderhood is “cultivating a relationship with yourself,” according to Thomas. This, he said, means becoming comfortable in your own skin and willing to express yourself.
“Elders are much more liberated,” Thomas said. “Adults spend a lot of time playacting to keep everybody happy. Elders do not.”
And sometimes, aging means learning to live with something you can’t change, such as an illness or dementia.
According to Thomas, “We need to challenge the idea that a diagnosis of dementia is only a tragedy and nothing else, and challenge the idea that people living with dementia can’t experience love or joy.
“People living with dementia are fully human beings that deserve a place in our society,” he stressed.
All in all, Thomas’ advice to everyone is “Be a part of the revolution. Don’t accept aging the way it is being presented. Disrupt it, Change it, make it new. Make it yours.”
It was a message not lost on Mandy LeBeau of Chicopee, who attended Thomas’ JGS “Changing Aging “ presentation,
“I loved his message, and I’ve been passing it on to my friends. What he said about ‘MESH’ really stuck with me. It stands for Move, Eat, Sleep and Heal. He talked about how all are important as we get older. I wrote it on my daily calendar so I remember it. We also have to let some things go; we aren’t 18 anymore, but that’s OK,” LeBeau said.