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All over the world, but particularly in the United States, people exert great effort in avoiding old age. Americans spend $262 million per year on antiaging serums for the skin and $310 million per year on synthetic hairpieces. They spend $2.3 billion per year on anti-aging wrinkle creams. They spend $2.6 billion per year on drugs for erectile dysfunction. They spend $37 billion a year on nutritional supplements to fight aging and to support good health.
Probably one of the reasons Americans spend their resources to avoid getting older is that the upside to aging isn't readily apparent. Among Americans who have lived to the age of 60, life expectancy is about 85. Those last few years, after 75 or so, are likely to be unpleasant for most. People simply outlive their friends and loved ones. They reach a point they can no longer keep up their sports, their hobbies, their social lives, or even their homes. They find their way into incredibly expensive rest homes, spending their life savings or dependent on the state for a low standard of living. It doesn't have to be this way.
The Eden Alternative
In 1991 Dr. Bill Thomas was burning out as an emergency room doctor. He got a call asking him to be a medical director for a nursing home in upstate New York. Thomas had grown in the tiny town of Nichols, New York, where old people continued to be surrounded by life-long friends and family members all of their lives. Families took care of old people, but old people also took care of families. The doctor's bucolic background left him unprepared for what he would find in the nursing center.
Thomas found the rest home to a repository for forgotten people losing interest in the world. Acting on instinct, he ordered the staff to acquire two dogs, four cats, several hens, a pair of rabbits, and 100 parakeets, all in violation of state law. He also had the home buy house plants. They started a vegetable garden. They opened a day care center for staff members' children.
The sudden infusion of life and activity and being needed had a profound effect on the residents. Many started dressing themselves and feeding themselves again. The need for prescription drugs fell to half that of a normal nursing home. He called his initiative the Eden Alternative, and it was duplicated in all 50 states of the USA, and in Australia, Canada, Europe, and Japan.
Green Houses for the Elderly Before the Green Movement
Dr. Thomas didn't stop there. He built on his success by building a nursing center of "Green Houses," smaller residences with private bedrooms and bathrooms. Moving nursing home residents from large buildings with long corridors into small private residences had an unexpected effect. Residents no longer needed wheelchairs, because they no longer had as far to go to get to the places they needed to be during the day. After six weeks, he had to call for trucks to pick up and carry off wheelchairs that were no longer needed. The kinds of support needed for the residents were far more pleasing to staff, too. There was greater need for gerontology nurses than for orderlies.
What Thomas could not do, even with two great ideas, was to change attitudes about the elderly. Not doing anything differently, he found, trumped even good ideas for change. So he set about finding ways to change attitudes.