Jewish World Review Sept. 27, 2004 / 12 Tishrei, 5765
Boomers' next thing
Baby boomers have revolutionized music, food, fashion, childbirth and sex. Finally, they're focusing on something important.
"I aim to close every nursing home in America," says geriatrician William Thomas, 44. "And I have 77 million allies. [Boomers] are going to resist being institutionalized on a massive scale."
Hell no, we won't go! But ... where else is there?
Right now, Thomas admits, there aren't many options. Either you can live alone, which gets boring. Or you can enter a "home." To younger folks, maybe a 180-bed institution looks like a place to make 179 new friends. But to elders, it looks like a place filled with 179 strangers - one of whom will be sharing the bathroom.
"Residents are expected to surrender autonomy and personal dignity in return for their reliance on the staff," writes Thomas in his electrifying new book, "What Are Old People For?" No wonder the residents get depressed. But what's the alternative?
Or, as Thomas calls them, Green Houses. Same deal (minus the kegs): A group of people choosing to share a house and the activities of everyday life.
Rather than "getting services" - the nursing home goal - the Green House goal is "convivium," says Thomas: Relishing good food with good friends. In fact, the whole day is organized around preparing meals.
As much as they can, the eight or 10 residents help out with cooking and cleaning. Then everyone - including the two staff members and any visitors - eats together in the kitchen at a long table. Special requests are honored. If you like ravioli, you'll get it. Moreover, everyone gets a private bedroom and bathroom, and all rooms open onto a yard!
This may sound ridiculously utopian, but Thomas is no pie-in-the-sky guy. Down in Tupelo, Miss., you can see his first 13 Green Houses, which cost no more to run than a traditional institution. They have been up for 18 months, filled with former residents of a nursing home that was torn down to give Thomas' plan a try.
"We liberated them!" says Thomas of the more than 100 elders. "And one of the first things we had to do," he says joyfully, "was run out to the store for sun hats!" Some of the residents had not been outside in years.
And even though 80% of these elders have Alzheimer's, it's clear they are living a much better life.
"One woman," says Jude Rabig, the project director, "makes her corn bread once a week." In another Green House, seven of the 10 residents used wheelchairs when they arrived. Today, only three do. It's easier to walk when you don't have to travel long corridors.
The elders spend their days breaking bread, celebrating when they can and mourning when they must. In other words, they live a human life. As revolutions go, this is one we've all been waiting for.
(For more info, go to www.thegreenhouseproject.com)
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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.
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