A nursing home should be less like a hospital and more like a garden

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A better nursing home
By Jerry Brownstein
Dr Bill Thomas is a Harvard-trained physician who is on a radical crusade to change how we think about aging. The message that he wants to share with the world is simple: Growing older can be a good thing. His mission is to change prevailing attitudes about aging, and encourage people to think of “post-adulthood” as a time of enrichment. He believes that our society has brainwashed us to believe that aging is something to be feared. This is so pervasive that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to isolation, loneliness and lack of autonomy.

When Dr Thomas first became the medical director of a nursing home in New York, he found the place to be “a depressing repository for old people whose minds and bodies seemed dull and dispirited.” He decided to transform it by changing the environment. He brought in numerous animals including dogs, cats, rabbits and 100 parakeets. He also added hundreds of plants in gardens that grew both flowers and fresh vegetables. Another great innovation was adding a day-care centre for the staff’s children. Not only did this make the staff happier, but it also gave the residents a chance to interact with the children.

Caring for the plants and animals plus the presence of the children restored the residents’ spirits and their sense of autonomy. The number of prescriptions fell by half and so did the death rate. Thomas also pioneered having more private living spaces where residents have their own bedrooms and bathrooms. He calls his revolutionary approach the ‘Eden Alternative’, and it is based on the idea that a nursing home should be less like a hospital and more like a garden. Dr Thomas’ model has been replicated in hundreds of institutions throughout the US as well as in Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia.


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