The Guardian publishes an interview today with Bill Thomas, a charismatic social entrepreneur and Harvard-educated authority on geriatric medicine and elder care.
He set up a company called Eden Alternative – a non-profit organisation that works on a consultancy basis with care homes around deinstitutionalisation programmes and has come to the UK to share some of his expertise and knowledge.
The organisation’s motto is “eliminating loneliness, helplessness and boredom which has to be one of the greatest challenges facing residential care – ironic perhaps, that they should be such an issue in a communal living environment.
Thomas seems to be driven and passionate. As he is asked in the interview
But is it really possible to transform care, however well-intentioned, into some leafy gerontopia?
There is a pause before Thomas responds passionately: “It’s not impossible. What’s happening is the greatest ageing adventure in the history of humankind. The old are succeeding as they never have before. But here’s the kicker: we have got to invent a new old age. The baby boomer generation aren’t going to sit still and accept the sort of 19th-century elder care around now. In years to come, people will compare the way we care for the old to the way we look at the slave trade.”
Apart from absolutely loving the word ‘gerontopia’ and needing to contrive to fit it into this post somehow, one a more serious level the points are more than valid.
We remain afraid of old age so tarnish those older people with some of our own prejudices and attitudes. It is still seen as acceptable to infantilise, make assumptions or diminish the worth of those who are older in a way that would not be acceptable to any other group of people – but age is also universal. All types of people grow old, regardless of culture, race, social class or wealth. Even if we have no charitable bone in our body, we owe it to ourselves at a future date to provide a cohesive, stimulating and caring old age.
Thomas explains how he implements his system
The Thomas approach begins by changing the minds of care managers. He says: “I don’t deal with bad people, I deal with bad systems. You need to change the relationship between management and staff. Too often, management is focused on tasks that they feel need to be done, almost losing sight of the people and creating a culture characterised by pessimism, cynicism and stinginess.” Moving decision-making closer to the people who live in these homes improves their quality of life, he adds.
The approach makes sense. It is a shame almost that it seems to revolutionary that someone is actually regarding adults in care home settings as human being with exactly the same hopes and aspirations as any one of us.
It’s an interesting interview that throws some uncomfortable mirrors to us about the ways that care is structured presently but hopefully, a step in the right direction – towards a gerontopia that really doesn’t need to reside in the imagination – it probably just needs to be a lot better funded..