25 years later, this plague is still among us

James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

Somewhere Dr. Bill must have been smiling. That was my conclusion when I read a recent dazzling article from Pulitzer Prize winner Amy Ellis Nutt.

She had not quoted nor mentioned him, nor do I even know if the two know of one another. But finding a link between her and Bill is unavoidable.

As Billy Joel might sing, it's a drink called loneliness.

Bill Thomas, M.D., is widely known as the founder of the Eden Alternative and the Green House movement. Far from lonely himself, the reform-minded physician was last seen performing an unusual nationwide tour that featured his motivational talks before auditorium crowds, urging them to think about better housing, care and living conditions for elders.

Even before that, however, his fame catapulted beyond long-term care circles thanks to extensive mentions in Atul Gawande's 2014 bestseller “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.”

The mission of the Eden Alternative is to improve elders' (and their caregivers') well-being by transforming their living and work spaces. Eden's stated “vision” statement:  "To eliminate loneliness, helplessness and boredom.”

Like the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, Thomas lets it all hang out in the first of his 10 Eden Alternative principles: “The three plagues of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom account for the bulk of suffering among our Elders.” It's loneliness, front and center again.

He wrote those words in 1991 — 25 years ago, that is — when he founded the Eden movement. That's why he must have been smiling if he saw Nutt's article on the front page of the Washington Post in January.

Although scientists have documented the harm of loneliness through the decades, Nutt's piece gives life to the idea that loneliness is a full-blown public health hazard. She deftly uses the views of top clinical and social scientists to back up this implication-laden view.

This is must-read stuff for anyone who works with the elderly, or simply might get old himself or herself. Ellis goes far beyond a “loneliness is bad” story to delve into the scientific explanations and caregiving implications of this growing threat.

“Many researchers believe the United States is not doing enough to address loneliness as a public health issue,” she writes. A discussion of a movement in the United Kingdom to raise awareness of loneliness follows. The British campaign targets policy and budget makers who (theoretically at least) can change public perception.

The irony of increasing isolation in a world that has faster and wider-reaching communication capabilities is not lost on Ellis and the experts.

Because of this, Bill Thomas must be smiling. Not content, but satisfied. Happy that this bittersweet circumstance — the ravages of loneliness receiving widespread attention — is getting its day in the public eye again.

James M. Berklan is McKnight's Editor. Follow him @JimBerklan.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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