Profile — Doubting Thomas: William H. Thomas, M.D., founder and president, The Eden Alternative
William Thomas may pride himself on living a simple life and promoting a more simplified approach to eldercare. But make no mistake — he's one complex character.How Thomas became an international authority on geriatric medicine and eldercare is an intriguing story. A Harvard Medical School graduate, he was bent on making his mark as an emergency medicine physician. He still marvels at how his increasingly embraced eldercare concepts, the Eden Alternative and the Green House project, almost never came to be.
"I was working as an [emergency department] doc and I received a call from a nursing home asking if I'd be interested in a part-time job," he recalled, chuckling at how he swiftly dismissed the invitation. The facility persisted, calling back the next day.
"I had just come off a 24-hour shift and, man, was I exhausted. I caved and said I'd come down and take a look. I quickly realized that this was a place where I could make a difference."
The lack of formal geriatric training seemingly worked in Thomas' favor.
"He came into the field with [fresh] eyes. He was able to see things from a new perspective and was able to offer some solutions to the issues and problems he witnessed," said Sandy Ransom, a Texas State research institute director who traveled to New York 11 years ago to meet Thomas after reading his first book, The Eden Alternative: Nature, Hope & Nursing Homes.
"He's a visionary and is able to inspire people," added Ransom, now vice president of The Eden Alternative's board of directors.
The harsh realities of long-term care fueled Thomas' vision. He saw residents battling the three "plagues:" loneliness, helplessness and boredom. With the support of his mentor, the facility's director of nursing, Lois Greising, he formally founded The Eden Alternative less than a year later. It emphasizes plants, animals and children in a flexible, less institutional care setting.
Thomas' non-traditional, slow-paced lifestyle was a sharp contrast to the typical chaotic nursing home environment. When he took the job, he was doing as he does now: homesteading on 250 acres, living off the land in a house he and his wife, Jude, built. They milk goats, cut firewood, tend gardens and produce maple syrup.
"Imagine the contrast. I'm standing in my garden picking peas one minute and then after riding my bicycle five to six miles to work, I'm face to face with what's going on in a nursing home. Can you say culture shock? Had I adopted a more traditional lifestyle where I was driving an SUV to work and listening to Howard Stern on the radio, the contrast may not have seemed so great. I may not have been as moved to come up with a new concept."
That's doubtful, considering his personal experiences with caregiving. His five children range in age from 7 to 17. The two youngest have a rare neurological disability that renders them blind and unable to walk or speak.
"Caregiving is a 24-hour reality in our house. But our little girls are wonderful teachers and have helped shape our caregiving philosophy. We have seen how much thoughtful caregiving has benefited them," Thomas says.
To say that the innovative care concept, based on bringing Mother Nature and holistic approaches into the care environment, has caught on is an understatement. More than 400 nursing homes across the country have been "Edenized."
Thomas' clustered housing Green House concept, which represents a radically new approach to long-term care, also has gained momentum. In 2005, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced a five-year, $10 million grant that will create Green House projects in all 50 states.
Thomas predicts the institutional long-term care model could cease to exist in 10 years. "Once facilities realize that the management culture must change so management can deliver to the staff exactly the things they want the staff to deliver to the elderly," he said, "we're really going to be on a roll."
Earns M.D. from Harvard Medical School
Completes family-medicine residency at University of Rochester
Becomes medical director for Chase Memorial Nursing Home, New Berlin, NY
Formally begins implementing Eden Alternative
Authors The Eden Alternative – Nature, Hope & Nursing Homes
LTC medical director for St. Luke's Homes, upstate NY
Serves as LTC medical director for Loretto Utica Center, Utica, NY
Named one of America's greatest leaders by US News and World Report