Dr. William H. Thomas – Part 1
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Dr. William H. Thomas – Part 2

[Dr. William H. Thomas - Part 1]

Thomas_bill_3smCategory_bug_interview Long-time readers of Time Goes By will be familiar with the name of geriatrician, William H. Thomas. I have quoted his book, “What are Old People For?”, extensively in these pages on a variety of topics about elderhood, and it has become a favorite reference for me in writing about aging.

Among many other activities and accomplishments, Dr. Thomas is a professor at the Erickson School of Aging Studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore Campus and he is the founder of the Eden Alternative, a program to de-institutionalize nursing homes throughout the world. (You can find out more about him and his work here.)

Most of all, Dr. Thomas is wise and understanding in the nature of elders and aging, a fierce advocate for elders, and now he has joined us online with his new blog, Changing Aging. It is listed permanently under Elderbloggers on the left sidebar and I hope you will stop by to leave him a welcome message and also make him a regular on your blog-reading rounds. We all have much to learn from Dr. Thomas.

It is a remarkable thing for a renowned physician who is as busy and involved as Dr. Thomas to take on a daily blog. And somehow, he also made time in his schedule to do this interview for Time Goes By, which we conducted by email. Today, Part 2. You can read Part 1 here.

RB: It is rarely mentioned, but one reason for the pervasiveness of ageism is that young people don’t want to be reminded that they too will get old one day and they will die. Old people are living examples of that. How an that be addressed?
WHT: The evidence shows that the stronger the relationships young people have with individual old people, the less likely they are to hold ageist biases. It's all about relationships.

RB: Do you see any progress being made against ageism?
WHT: I loved the Dove pro-aging spots when they ran. I thought they were a good first step.

RB: In your book, What Are Old People For?, you write: “Old age may be a time of loss and decline, but it is not only that. There is a countervailing and equally significant increase in th4e power of adaption.” Would you talk a little about that power in elders?
WHT: We human beings live a long time after our reproductive peak. This is no accident. Our species took the necessity of aging and, from that, refined the virtues of elderhood. Elders are an integral, biologically determined element of the human cultural fabric and it is time they understood this role and begin to play their part.

RB: In that same book, you say that old age is different from adulthood. I don’t think many people make that distinction; they see elders mostly as wrinkly adults. Would you explain some of the differences?
WHT: Here's the SAT question: Childhood is to Adulthood as Adulthood is to…

The answer is: Elderhood.

Elderhood is as rich, different and distinctive as any other part of the human life cycle. It has its own challenges and rewards and needs to be engaged on its own terms.

RB: There is a lot of talk these days about successful aging. Do you know what that is? Or what Unsuccessful aging is?
WHT: Unsuccessful aging is dying. Those who die young (even if they are good) miss out on the things that can be known only in the fullness of life. Those of us whom wake up in the morning do so one day older than we were the day before. That is successful aging.

RB: Having chosen a profession that immerses you in the lives of elders, how will that inform your old age when you get there, do you think?
WHT: I think that I am, in many ways, an elder in the making. I often look at a problem in my life and try to imagine what my elder self will think looking back at that moment decades hence. Most often my elder self tells me to cool off and not get so wound up. It's pretty good advice.

RB: You are “only” 48. What physical changes of aging have you run into so far? Do they disturb you?
WHT: I am happy and proud to be in my late forties. My hair is thinning and my beard is turning gray. I use reading glasses when ambient light is low. I go running three or four times a week and find that, when I run with my 16 year old son, he can motor up hills - just the way I used to but no longer can.

I also find that I want more time to think and find less pleasure in chaotic situations with lots of noise and uncertainty. I also find that I get more pleasure over a meal and a bottle of wine with my wife than I ever thought was possible.

RB: You are 48. How do you think life will be different for elders when you are 78 than it is now?
WHT: The main thing that will change is that in 30 years elders will spend vastly more time with people who are not their blood relatives. In the past, aging was a family affair. In the future, it will be a function of the community and the communities will, by and large, be of our own choosing. I am likely to grow old in an intentional community and am very unlikely to grow old in the care of members of my own family.

RB: What are the most important one or two things you have learned from elders?
WHT: 1. Wisdom lies in knowing what to overlook. 2. In the end, no one gets out alive and so, for the time we are here, it is all about relationships. Nothing else really matters.

RB: Like it or not, celebrities have a great deal of influence on public attitudes about getting old. What public figures do you think are good role models for aging?
WHT: I think Oprah has done some good here. She looks, dresses and acts like a proud woman of her own age.

I thought that Kevin Costner did a good turn in The Guardian. He looked his age (more or less) and played the part of a man who was able to confront and overcome his own attachment to youth.

RB: What are you teaching your children about aging and getting old?
WHT: I believe that this kind of teaching works best when it is offered on a "show, don't tell" basis. So I try to show them how I feel about my aging. They say, “Hey dad your beard is getting gray." I answer, "Thank you very much!" “Hey dad, you are going bald!" "I am a proud of that and will be proud of you when you start to go bald."

RB: If you could choose just one piece of advice to give people about getting old, what would it be?
WHT: Let go of youth. It is but a flower. To know old age is to dive deeply into the very roots of life. This is what is real, what is hidden from the young, what enriches and sustains us. Old age is not something that happens to us, it is who we are, embrace it - and be made whole.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Linda Davis tells us how just the silent presence of elders can soothe, in Grandparents in the Glass.]


Amazing - thank you. I turn 52 this Friday and this 2-part interview is one of the best birthday presents ever.

After reading this I am reminded of a recent definition I heard about the difference between intelligence and wisdom. Intelligence is knowing how to do something; wisdom is knowing whether or not it is worth doing at all. Elder wisdom in particular is the capacity to think with both the head and the heart. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world where this kind of wisdom is truly valued?

He had some very good thoughts. I do think my own attitude toward getting old has been influenced by the positive old examples I had. It also has made me not deny that it's different. Where it can be a positive time in many ways, there are changes and even if someone had face lifts up the wahzoo, still the body is the age it is. People who work out all the time think they beat it until they need all their joints replaced. It is different, does require changing attitudes and yes, adaptation, but different isn't bad. Denying it won't make it go away, and there is no reason to moan over it. It's interesting, to say the least, to be going through what I saw so many go before me.

I love the "one piece of advice about getting old". My roots are firm and have taken many moons to become strong and I am embracing their logevity.

I grew up as an only child. My parents were in their 30's when I was born. All four of my grandparents lived into their late 80's, and I saw them often. As a result, older people have never seemed threatening or mysterious to me. Maybe that's part of the reason I ended up as a family caregiver (then as a blogger on the subject).

I notice, however, that it isn't just old age our culture devalues. We also don't think much of childhood. The object, apparently, is to jump as quickly as possible into the 18-34 demographic, and then stay there forever.

Wishful and toxic thinking on both ends of life...

I like this guy.

Maybe it's the mood I'm in because yesterday I had my passport stamped for the Land of Old by a diagnosis of cataracts. Until now my physical problems were those that a person of any age could have, but cataracts usually come with "old age." So when I read the doctor's answer to the question, what is unsuccessful aging? as "Unsuccessful aging is dying," I heard the voice and had a vision of Groucho Marx wiggling his eyebrows and wagging his cigar. Come on, is an unlucky person with Alzheimer's aging successfully just because he wakes up in the morning.

I loved that last item so much I made it into a sig file. Thank you both for this great interview. No wonder you like this guy, Ronni. He really gets it, doesn't he? (Pity we can't clone him and put a copy in every medical and eldercare facility.)

"Is an unlucky person with Alzheimer's aging successfully just because he wakes up in the morning?"
That's a tougher question than you'd think. I struggled with it every time I had the choice of pursuing an intervention to keep my Mom going despite severe dementia. What always decided me in favor of the treatment--nothing invasive, just meds--was that my mother so clearly valued her life. On her 90th birthday, after nearly 6 years in a nursing home, confined--literally--to a wheelchair, with parkinsonism and dementia, she struggled to share this thought with us at her party:
"The thing is to stay alive. As long as you're alive, there's hope."

Mary, you had a great mother. I think she probably had that attitude toward life her whole life. Nowadays we hear so much about depression. I wonder how many people could react the same way as your mother.

Good interview with Dr. Thomas, and thanks to you both.

I agree with the doctor that the best way children will learn about relating to older people is by how they observe adults in their life talking about elders, behaving toward them, and helping the child understand the elders point of view.

I was born late in my mother's life, enjoyed contact with a limited number of grandparents and really only remember one -- a maternal grandmother -- but the experience was rich and treasured.

I am grateful to the adults in my life, most of whom "showed" me, as Dr. Thomas said, the attitude and behaviors I would want others to direct toward me in the years to come.

I generally enjoyed the company of other adults from an earliest age, was usually treated with respect by them, so I had little reason other than to return that respect. I saw how aging can affect each individual in differing ways, so that rather than fear of the process, I wondered how I would change through the years.

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