What Are Old People For?
by William H. Thomas, M.D.

Press Releases Biography Excerpts Book Cover Author Photo

A “cult of adulthood” is keeping our society from being as good as it can be, according to Dr. William H. Thomas, author of What Are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World, just released in paperback.
“Identifying a cult is easiest,” says Dr. Thomas, “when it is headed by a madman. It’s much more challenging when the cult’s beliefs mesh with society’s conventional wisdom. This is the cult hidden in plain sight.”
Who is this guy, and what’s he talking about? Dr. Thomas has received a Heinz Award for the Human Condition and is a recognized leader in the long-term care sector. In What Are Old People For? he speaks to and for all ages in our society, from the very young to the very old. He is talking about who really holds the power.
“Modern society has given us many perspectives on power,” he explains. “Feminists have developed a powerful critique of male control; economists draw attention to the growing gulf between rich and poor; others emphasize the value of information and the rise of a new educated class with its hands on the keyboards of power.
“But one attribute is common to them all, and that is that adults are the ones who govern. Man or woman, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, each of us participates in or is subject to the power of adults. Adults rule.” This is the cult hidden in plain sight.
The backbone of Bill Thomas’s argument is a chapter called “Tragedy.” Thomas writes about an assault on both childhood and elderhood, the trampling of the boundaries between each and adulthood. Too early, children are discouraged from the BEING-doing stage that gives childhood its meaning, and encouraged to start the DOING-being stage that is adulthood. On the other end, too late, adults who feel the pull to start valuing BEING-doing again, now feel they are too busy and too needed where they are. The tragedy lies in the loss for our society of the wisdom and peace that full-spectrum lives could be providing.
Thomas cautions us, “We have bought into a cult mentality that denies us a powerful elderhood.” What Are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World removes our ageist blinders and creates a strong vision for a future in which old age becomes a healing force in our society. Encouraging intergenerational activities in local communities, Thomas also describes “Green Houses” of intentional communities for older people (now in prototype stages around the country) and proposes a new profession called “shahbaz” (midwife to elders) for developing the capacity for peacemaking and wisdom giving that grows within older people. “The liberation of elders and elderhood is not an aging issue,” says Thomas. “It is our last, best hope for saving our world.”
What Are Old People For? is available at bookstores nationwide, online, and at www.VandB.com or call 800-789-7916.

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Now in Paperback
“Electrifying”—NY Daily News • “A form of modern-day prophecy”—Tampa Tribune • “A rebel with a cause”—Washington Post • First place tradebook winner—Medical Book Awards • Book of the Year in Consumer Health—American Journal of Nursing.

William H. Thomas, M.D. is a geriatrician and a visionary with an international reputation as one of the leading authorities on the future of aging and longevity. He is president of the Eden Alternative, a global nonprofit organization, and a professor at the University of Maryland's Erickson School. He lives in Ithaca, NY, with his wife, Judith Meyers-Thomas, and their five children.
What Are Old People For? was written under a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The author is donating all royalty proceeds to the Center for Growing and Becoming, a nonprofit corporation with a vision of promoting a positive elderhood for all.

To request a review copy of What Are Old People For?, to arrange an author interview, or to have cover art sent electronically, please contact Kate Bandos at KSB Promotions: 800-304-3269 or 616-676-0758; fax 616-676-0759; kate@ksbpromotions.com

What Are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World
by William H. Thomas, M.D.
Paperback Pub Date: June 30 2007
ISBN-13: 978-1-889242-32-3 / ISBN-10: 1-889242-32-2
General Nonfiction; $16.95; 384 pages; 6 x 9; Notes, Bibliography, Index
Published by VanderWyk & Burnham, www.VandB.com
Distributed by National Book Network, Inc. (NBN)


Considering a New Career Path?
Become a Midwife for a Positive Elderhood

That’s the suggestion of visionary geriatrician William H. Thomas, M.D., author of What Are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World, just released in paperback.
Old age, according to Dr. Thomas, needs its own midwife. Consider the current situation in the nursing home industry, where, thanks to low pay, low prestige, and difficult work, staff turnover is a staggering problem. “The people who work within this system,” notes Dr. Thomas, “are often generous and big-hearted, but the organizations themselves do not know love, cannot know love, and, indeed, reject the idea that love could form the basis for a reconsideration of our longevity.”
Dr. Thomas calls his midwives to elders “shahbazim” (pronounced shah-bah-ZEEM), plural for “shahbaz” (shah-BAHZ), a term he has coined in order to “free us from the sediment that has accumulated around English words such as worker, assistant, and helper.” A shahbaz, he says, is “a big person in a big job.”
Just like their new name, shahbazim are, themselves, something new. They draw on many traditions, professions, and patterns of belief. They are allies of the new elderhood and will stand shoulder to shoulder with the nurses, doctors, and therapists whose skills also contribute to the well-being of the elders.
If you’re considering a career in healthcare, first read What Are Old People For? and then imagine yourself in the job of a shahbaz. Your objective will be to protect, sustain, and nurture elders. Elders and shahbazim have within their relationship a shared opportunity for growth, satisfaction, and self-actualization. In prototype communities called “Green Houses” now under development, shahbazim are being groomed as part of the overall approach to intentional community living for older people.

The Work of Shahbazim*
Shahbazim have a duty to:
protect the elders with whom they work.
They always ask, “Does the protection that I am offering both enlarge the capacity of the elder to experience the richness of elderhood and promote my own development as a shahbaz?”
sustain the elders with whom they work.
A shahbaz practices the art of convivium (using meals as a means for shared enrichment), values the craft of homemaking, and honors the act of befriending.
nurture the elders with whom they work.
They know that fulfillment can be found within the most basic routines of everyday life, that the shahbazim need the elders and the elders need the shahbazim, and that together they can help renew the ancient virtues of elderhood.

* Adapted from What Are Old People For? by William H. Thomas, M.D. (VanderWyk & Burnham, 2007 paperback reprint)

What Are Old People For? is available at bookstores nationwide, online, and at www.VandB.com or call 800-789-7916.

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Physician and Author William H. Thomas, M.D.
Challenges America’s Obsession with Youth
and Offers a Radical Vision of Aging
In New Book Titled What Are Old People For?

“It is time to enjoy what aging has to offer us, and actually welcome it
into our lives.”

In the 1950’s, Dr. Benjamin Spock began to speak out against popular but harmful child rearing practices. He offered anxious new parents sensible, compassionate advice. His book sold 40 million copies — and changed child rearing forever.
When the boomers grew up and started having children of their own, they rejected the conventional clinical approach to childbirth and searched for another way. They found Dr. Lamaze and brought his radical ideas about childbirth into the mainstream. Lamaze classes became a generational rite of passage.
Now as boomers tiptoe into their 50s and 60s, Dr. William H. Thomas, world famous in the field of long-term care, is offering a clear-eyed view of aging and radical ideas about why baby boomers should embrace it. “The old way of seeing old age, as a time of relentless decline, ignores the value of the last half of life.” He adds, “Old age may be difficult but there is plenty of good in it as well.”
In his provocative new book entitled What Are Old People For?, the 44-year-old, Harvard-trained physician explains why we age and shows that our mastery of aging is one of the most human things about us. He explores how the obsession with youth harms young and old alike and argues that aging boomers will change our society --- one more time. “Creating a new old age will be the baby boomers’ last act on the public stage,” says Thomas.
The American tendency to equate being old with being sick, mirrors the view of pregnancy and childbirth that held sway when the boomers were born. Obstetricians treated childbearing as an illness and drained almost every drop of humanity from the experience of childbirth. Lamaze and others countered with a focus on women and their families and a recognition of the joyful aspect of birthing. Empowering the mother and strengthening her emotional support turned out to be a terrific way of reducing the very real pain of childbirth.
Dr. Thomas shows that this approach succeeded because it embraced both traditional ideas about birthing and clinical obstetrics. He writes that the Lamaze method did not “…seek to restore the birthing practices of long ago. Few would ever have accepted such a dangerous step backward. Instead it became a hybrid of old and new, different from anything that had come before. We are now preparing for a similar revolution that will transform old age and the lives of elders the world over.”
Drawing from popular culture, history, science and literature to explore what aging really is, Thomas presents elderhood as a developmental stage of life that is an essential part of a healthy society, as important in its own way as childhood and active adulthood. He maintains that seeing old age solely in terms of disease, disability and decline, damages our society.
At the heart of the fear of aging that grips so many adults is the dilemma of dependence and independence. Being independent requires you to live in your own home, no matter how dangerous and lonely that might become. Becoming dependent can easily lead to the loss of one’s home and a terrifying move into a nursing home. These institutions are famous for stripping people of choice, freedom and self-determination.
In What Are Old People For?, Dr. Thomas introduces a new vision of “intentional communities,” of up to 10 elders who chose to live together with the help of several younger adults and strive to become a true community. “Baby boomers are the ideal generation to create this new model,” says Thomas. “With a higher level of education than any previous generation, a higher level of wealth, and the well-established habit of re-inventing social norms, I think baby boomers are going to find the concepts of intentional communities and the approach to old age as a development stage instead of decline appealing and consistent with their values. I just don’t see boomers accepting the fate of a nursing home.”
The “Eldertopia” that Dr. Thomas imagines is encouraged by evidence from a number of extremely successful intentional communities, called Green Houses, that Thomas has created in collaboration with partners around the country. “The idea that only large-scale nursing homes can be cost-effective and provide adequate medical care is false. It is time to liberate elders from institutionalization that saps their dignity and breeds helplessness,” says Thomas.
In their place, Thomas advocates small group homes for the aged mainstreamed into residential neighborhoods where elders can maintain their status as part of the community, share a meal and a story with familiar companions, and relish the simple pleasures and satisfaction of being old. With this new model, elders will be able to share their wisdom and their legacy with the children and adults who surround them, restoring them to an important place in our society.

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Bio: Dr. William H. Thomas

Winner of the Heinz Award for the Human Condition and named as one of America’s Best Leaders by the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Bill Thomas is a geriatrician and a visionary with an international reputation as one of the leading authorities on the future of aging and longevity. His honors have also included the America's Award (established by Norman Vincent Peale and sometimes called "The Nobel Prize for Goodness"), the Molly Mettler Award from the Health Promotion Institute, an award from the Giraffe Project (for sticking his neck out), and a three-year fellowship from Ashoka for his social entrepreneurship work with the Eden Alternative and improving the lives of elders. Ashoka is a global nonprofit organization that searches the world for social entrepreneurs—extraordinary individuals with unprecedented ideas for change in their communities.
Dr. Thomas is president of the Eden Alternative, a global nonprofit organization, and a professor at the University of Maryland’s Erickson School. He also consults as a Visiting Scholar to AARP. He lives near Ithaca, NY, with his wife, Judith Meyers-Thomas, and their five children: Zachary, Virgil, Haleigh Jane, Hannah, and Caleb.
A native of upstate New York, Bill Thomas attended the State University College at Cortland, where he earned a B.S. in Biology, summa cum laude, in 1982. While in college, he ran successfully for the presidency of the college's Student Association and unsuccessfully for mayor of the city of Cortland.
Before graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1986, Bill served as one of the founding editors of Murmurs, a quarterly journal of opinion. A three-year residency in Family Medicine at the University of Rochester followed medical school, and, in his third year of training, Bill was selected by the Mead Johnson Foundation as one of the top Family Medicine residents in the country. Board Certified in Family Medicine and Geriatrics, Dr. Thomas settled into a rural corner of Chenango County with his wife and partner, Judy (Jude) Meyers-Thomas, before moving to the Ithaca area. Dr. Thomas enjoys a professional life that includes patient care, teaching, research and writing, advocacy, and public speaking.
Bill and Jude have worked tirelessly to improve the quality of life for elders. Starting with their work on the Eden Alternative, which has attracted international attention, they are now devoting attention as well to the Green House Project. As one of the activities undertaken by their nonprofit Center for Growing and Becoming, and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Green House Project seeks to create a new kind of long-term care environment; nurturing a meaningful elderhood lies at its very heart.
You can visit Bill's Web page and learn more about his projects at www.edenalt.com. Also learn more about the Green House Project at www.thegreenhouseproject.org.

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copyright 2004 by William H. Thomas, M.D.
published by VanderWyk & Burnham
available in bookstores or call 1-800-789-7916

Dr. William Thomas writes

On society’s view of aging as a disease

“Dermatologist Nicholas Perricone opens his New York Times best-selling book The Wrinkle Cure by claiming, ‘Wrinkled, sagging skin is not the inevitable result of growing older. It’s a disease and you can fight it.’ If that is true, wrinkles represent a most unusual form of illness….Diseases need treatment and treatments cost money. Aided and abetted by hundreds of millions of dollars in marketing, the antiwrinkle business sows fear and reaps a rich financial harvest.” Page 7

On the need for a new perspective on what aging is

“The development of a new perspective on age and aging is both necessary and possible. Given the importance of aging in our lives, and the impact of aging on our families and society, a new openness and even curiosity about human aging would seem more than warranted. The time has come for our wondrous longevity to emerge from the long shadow cast by the vigor and virtues of youth.” Page 36

On the role of grandparents

“The human impulse to share food, energy, resources, and risk across the generations (summarized in the grandmother hypothesis) outranks all other human developments in its importance. …A million years ago the first grandmother attended to the cries of a hungry grandchild. In doing so she increased the reproductive success of her own daughter. Over time, those families that were blessed with older females who were inclined to give this kind of assistance grew in number and power. Families that could not master this strategy were overwhelmed. They became evolutionary dead ends. We take the constellation of traits that define our humanity for granted, little realizing that they are, in fact, the gifts of perhaps sixty thousand generations of elders.” Page 57

On the traditional model of elder care

“Society has traditionally assigned responsibility for the support and protection of the aged to the family. This ethic grew out of long experience with the high birth rates, stable extended family structures, and small numbers of older people that characterized early agricultural and pastoral societies…To grow old in a traditional society that “takes care of its own” is to rely almost exclusively on a stable network of family relations and a deep reservoir of unpaid female caregiving….Those who come to depend on their families are expected to minimize the burden they place on those who love and care for them. There is a deep-seated belief that to complain is to make oneself into a burden, and to become a burden is a terrible thing.” Page 75

On the pitfall of defining the needs of the elderly in financial terms alone

“[Social Security and Medicare] have indeed done immeasurable good for older people and their families. Far less obvious is the way that publicly provided resources and services have gradually replaced the idea that the bonds that unite young and old must also include important non-economic dimensions. We have created, and continue to maintain, a massive bureaucracy that serves the financial needs of the elderly. The fact that it does so completely without affection or tenderness is seen as beside the point.” Page 87

On the institutionalization of the elderly

“People are placed in nursing homes, often against their will, because they no longer display the behaviors expected of independent adults. The decision to surrender a loved one to a nursing home is emotionally traumatic and is usually made only after all other options have been exhausted. That alternatives are few (relative to demand) and underfunded (relative to what is spent on institutionalization) is rarely acknowledged.” Page 159

On the often dehumanizing impact of nursing homes

“Because nursing homes are operated as therapeutic institutions, machinelike efficiency is their ideal. The best facilities are thought to be those that deviate to the minimum extent possible from predetermined schedules and routines…This approach to daily life has a deadening effect on all who must live and work under its sway. Everyone needs to feel the fresh breeze of the unexpected, even if it does not blow every day. Spontaneous events and happenings are the source of interesting conversation. Conversations grow into stories that can be told and retold. Stories become memories. To live in a typical nursing home is to endure a famine of new memories.” Page 183

On the need to act now

“People often say to me, ‘Hey, Dr. Thomas, you’d better get this all fixed before I get old.’ I laugh and tell them that I will do my best. People like to imagine that such problems all lie in the future and, if they are lucky, might be sorted out before they enter their own old age. What they do not realize is that the fault lies not in our aging, but in the denial of aging.” Page 200

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