I’m too old for that.

Those days are over.

Careful, you might fall and break a hip.

When it comes to aging in America, we are culturally living in the dark ages, said Dr. Bill Thomas, geriatrician, musician and storyteller.

“Superstition, mythology, folk beliefs … we are constantly going up against things about aging that are not true,” Thomas said in a telephone interview.

“We need to challenge the assumptions people have about aging and the assumptions they have about dementia.”


With a road show. He calls it the "Age of Disruption Tour" -- complete with tour bus, musicians, performers and expert speakers.

“It’s the only thing of its kind in the world -- a rolling festival celebrating the virtues and values of aging,” Thomas said.

It’s educational, entertaining and uplifting, he said. It flips the way we think of growing old on its head -- spins it around. It changes the perspective -- from what aging takes away, to what it gives.

“The brain believes what you tell it,” Thomas said. “If you grow up and grow old surrounded by the message that old age is a time of decline, loss and sadness, you are much more likely to experience that than if you grow old in a culture where the message is that it’s a time of growing, risk-taking and discovery.

“What you believe, you find. Change what you believe and change the experience.”

Thomas is the founder of “The Eden Alternative,” a new model of senior care used by nursing homes, retirement facilities and home care agencies throughout the United States and other countries.

He also is the founder of the Green House Model of senior medical care, which replaces large nursing homes with smaller households that provide private rooms and bathrooms for up to 10 residents.

Lincoln-based Tabitha Health Care opened the nation’s second Green House Project homes in 2006.

Thomas started his career as a New York emergency room doctor.

“I was a big shot emergency room doctor, and I was going to make my mark in emergency medicine,” he said.

Then in 1991, he took a part-time job in a nursing home to earn a little extra cash.

“And I ended up falling in love,” he said.

He also quickly realized there had to be a better way for people to live out the remaining years of their lives.

“The place was depressing, with old people parked in wheelchairs like frogs on a log, bored with nothing to do, just waiting for death to finally reach them," he said. "It was horrible."

So he changed it. The nursing home got two dogs, four cats, several hens and 100 parakeets. It added a vegetable and flower garden, and created an on-site day care for staff workers’ children.

Dr. Atal Gawande detailed the results in his best-selling book, “Being Mortal.” Residents started caring for the plants and animals, and this restored their spirits and interest in doing things, Gawande wrote. Many residents started taking better care of themselves. They became more social, venturing out of their rooms and eating and interacting with people.

Prescription drug use dropped by 50 percent -- the biggest reduction was in medications for anxiety and agitation. Medical costs plummeted -- and so did the death rate. Many residents stopped using and needing wheelchairs.

“We’ve got to change the cultural assumptions about aging if we are going are going to make it better,” Thomas said.

To do that, he revamped his medical practice to include the road show.

“Part of my medical practice is traveling, singing, talking and telling stories about how we can use aging to make ourselves better and society better,” he said.

This is the third year of his "Age of Disruption Tour." It will be his first stop in Lincoln, which is the 77th stop of the 91-city 2016 tour.

The Lincoln leg of the tour is sponsored by AARP and Tabitha Health Care.

"Disrupting Dementia," the afternoon workshop, is for people with dementia and those who care for them.

“Instead of talking about them, they are part of the event,” Thomas said. “The workshop is built around and based around what people with dementia want and tell us. It is a marvelous and entertaining approach to saying: There is life to be lived for people living with dementia.”

It's an approach that is completely opposite of how most view a dementia diagnosis.

“The purpose of the workshop is to generate excitement and enthusiasm leading to and for a new approach, a new strategy,” Thomas said.

The idea is based on a simple premise: We tend to function up to the level that is required of us.

If it’s no longer required, we lose it.

“We want to help people be in the right environment that calls up the greatest of their abilities,” Thomas said. “The tragedy narrative focuses only on what they can’t do. We expand the conversation to talk about what they can do. They need to live in a place and in a way that calls up the greatest of their abilities.”

The nighttime workshop, “Life’s Most Dangerous Game,” is what Thomas calls “non-fiction theater.”

“Everything we love about theater, but the stories are true. We combine methodology, neuroscience, music and social history to give people a new way to think about aging,” Thomas said.

Particularly on three distinct levels: personal well-being, community well-being and societal well-being.

“America got it wrong," he said. "It thinks of old people as delicate objects to be swaddled in cotton and put in a drawer.

“Aging is the most dangerous game. So if we want to play it, we have got to do it well. We want people to do aging well."

And so his tour “challenges people to rise to the occasion.”

“To view aging as an opportunity to explore the world in new ways, to explore themselves in new ways and to learn new things,” Thomas said.

For those who think the task is for someone or something much larger than one person, Thomas disagrees.

“Our focus is on the little things people can do," he said. "That is how you make the world a better place. If everybody waits around for the perfect big thing, nothing is going to happen."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSerinandersen.


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