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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Human Gardens

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with gerontologist William Thomas about his new book Lessons from Hannah: Secrets to a Life Worth Living. Dr. Thomas explains the importance of the environment in the lives of the elderly, and how, with the addition of plants and animals, nursing homes can become vibrant, living places, or "human gardens."


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Thoughts of nursing homes often evoke images of sterile, inhospitable places. But it doesn't have to be that way. For the past few years, gerontologist Dr. William Thomas has dedicated his life to creating vibrant, living environments for the elderly. Plants, animals, and children are bound in what he calls his Eden Alternatives. And studies have shown that the quality of life for the residents in these facilities jumps in comparison to a standard nursing home. Dr. Thomas works with hundreds of these human gardens across the US and Canada. He is currently traveling around the country, promoting his second book about improving the quality of life for nursing home residents. It's called Lessons from Hannah: Secrets to a Live Worth Living. I asked Dr. Thomas to explain the importance of the environment in the lives of the elderly.

THOMAS: There is a deep-seated, indeed I would say fundamental need for
human beings to connect to the world around them. For thousands of generations, human beings, particularly elders, have lived their days close to plants and animals and children, in harmony with those things. And it's only very recently that we've come up with the notion that somehow these things can be dispensed with. That a sterile medical institutional environment will somehow suffice.

CURWOOD: You've dedicated your career to building these human gardens in nursing homes.


CURWOOD: Briefly describe what you mean.

THOMAS: Let's imagine you have in your community maybe a nursing home. Maybe there's 80 people living there. We would help people who run that nursing home take it and turn it into a garden. For example, in that 80-bed nursing home there might be 180 birds: parakeets, love birds, finches, cockatiels. There might be 1,000 green, growing plants. Not the plastic plants, and not the plants that are maintained by the professional gardeners in the lobby. I mean green, growing plants right next to the elders in their rooms. Oh, there might be 10 or 12 cats. There might be 5 or 6 dogs. There will probably be a couple of chinchillas, maybe some rabbits.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Chinchillas!

THOMAS: Oh, yes, chinchillas -- they're wonderful animals. And there will be children in the building and in and among the elders every day.

CURWOOD: And what are some of the changes, differences, that you've seen?

THOMAS: Well, I think a couple of things. First off, the elderly there have a better quality of life. Now, what do I mean by that? I mean, literally we've been able to measure that they're healthier, require fewer medications, live longer. They have less depression, less agitation or kind of calling out or striking out.

CURWOOD: Can you throw some numbers on those?

THOMAS: Sure. For example, we did a study in upstate New York where we found a 25% reduction in the death rate, a 75% reduction in the use of medication over a 2-year period of time. And indeed, a 50% reduction in the infection rate. And this was all compared to a control nursing home. And really, what those numbers demonstrate is that people who are living in a rich, green, natural environment are more resistant to disease, less likely to die, and require fewer medications, than people living in a sterile institutional environment.

CURWOOD: I'd like to turn now to your book. And you have to tell me: is this a novel, or is this autobiography, this Learning from Hannah?

THOMAS: It's an autobiographical novel. It weaves together magic and fantasy with reality.

CURWOOD: So, this book is really a folk tale, then. It's about you and a woman named Jude, and your wife's name is Judith. So I guess you're talking about the same person here.


CURWOOD: And it's a classic kind of tale. You're shipwrecked. You're thrown on an island called --

THOMAS: Calamos

CURWOOD: Calamos. And on this island you learn, essentially, the secrets
of life. And you have put them together in 10 rules. And I'm wondering if you could read to us those rules that you --

THOMAS: I would be happy to. In this land of Calamos, the elders there live at the heart of society. Indeed, the elders of Calamos are the beating heart of society. And I'm actually, in the book I'm a big shot smart geriatrician, who supposedly knows everything about aging. And in Calamos I become the student of an older woman. And she teaches me the following lessons.
The three plagues of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom, account for the bulk of suffering in a human community. Life in a human community revolves around close and continuing contact with children, plants, and animals. Loving companionship is the antidote to loneliness. In a human community we must provide easy access to human and animal companionship. To give care to another makes us stronger. To receive care gracefully is a pleasure and an art. A healthy human community promotes both of these virtues in its daily life, seeking always to balance one with another. Trust in each other allows us the pleasure of answering the needs of the moment. When we fill our lives with variety and spontaneity, we honor the world and our place in it. Meaning is the food and water that nourishes the human spirit. It strengthens us. The counterfeits of meaning tempt us with hollow promises. In the end they always leave us empty and alone. Medical treatment should be the servant of genuine care, never its master. In a human community, the wisdom of the elders grows in direct proportion to the honor and respect accorded to them. Human growth must never be separated from human life. And then, finally, wise leadership is the life blood of any struggle against the three plagues. In short, there can be no substitute.

CURWOOD: And the three plagues again are?

THOMAS: Loneliness, helplessness, and boredom.

CURWOOD: And boredom. So, what are the changes we need to make?

THOMAS: Well, actually, I'll tell you. I think that we're standing at the beginning of an incredible era of transformation and change in the field of aging. The baby boom generation, I can say as a geriatrician, is beginning to look at aging. And they don't like what they see. They see an institutional model of long-term care that is not serving people well. And they're going to want more natural alternatives. And quickly, I think you're going to see changes in long-term care institutions. They're going to become elder gardens. Human habitats where we can nurture and sustain our elders, not long-term treatment facilities. I think you're going to see a very much increased reliance on herbal remedies and treatments for elders, because they're so much more gentle and have so much fewer side effects. And then finally, I think you're going to see a flowering in our society that is going to bring aging into our consciousness, and we're going to begin to see more honor accorded to our elders.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

THOMAS: Yes, Steve.

CURWOOD: Bill Thomas's new book is called Learning from Hannah: Secrets for a Life Worth Living. Thank you.

THOMAS: Thank you.



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