Physician and elderly care pioneer launches experimental course at UMBC

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‘Superstar’ on aging
Physician and elderly care pioneer launches experimental course at UMBC
By Tanika White, Baltimore Sun
After graduating from Harvard Medical School, Dr. Bill Thomas – exhausted from the pace of emergency room shifts – took a part-time job in a nursing home, thinking he could catch up on some nap time.

Instead, the experience awakened in Thomas a desire to help the “elders” who had been relegated to nursing homes – places that he thought to be, by and large, cold, solitary and regimented.

“When I went to work at the nursing home,” he said, “I quickly discovered I could make life better for each and every person I was taking care of.

“Because their problems didn’t have to do with their medications. Their three biggest problems were loneliness, helplessness and boredom. Once I understood that, it changed my life.”

Thomas, 48, founded the Eden Alternative, a movement to de-institutionalize nursing homes by drawing more sunlight, pets and plants into them and providing more freedom to residents. He’s also the driving force behind the Green House, a cutting-edge version of a nursing home that looks and feels more like a house. With his blessing, Baltimore is on its way to getting Maryland’s first Green Houses in 2011 – one of 129 such projects planned to open nationwide in the next few years.

When it comes to aging issues, he has been called a visionary, a culture-changer and a prophet. And last week, he became simply Professor Thomas.

On Thursday, Thomas began teaching “Aging 100: You Say You Want a Revolution,” for freshmen at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Erickson School on Aging, Management and Policy.

The class, which he helped develop, is experimental. Only about 15 to 20 students will attend the inaugural course. But UMBC administrators think that the eventual reach of the class will be far greater.

“Among experts on aging, Bill Thomas is a superstar,” said UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III. “[He] is one of the most thought-provoking scholars in this field. … And he is serving as a kind of magnet in attracting people to the Erickson School and to the Baltimore area.”

William H. Thomas, M.D. is a study in contrasts: Harvard medical school graduate, dairy cow farmer. Geriatrician, globe-trotter. Hemp-shirt-wearer, movement-starter.

Thomas, who lives in Ithaca, N.Y., with his wife and five children, ages 9 to 19, will travel to the campus every other week to teach. He will live quietly at an airport hotel, away from all the city’s attractions, so he can focus on “thinking, talking and writing.”

“I have the ability to let my mind race with wild abandon,” said Thomas, who slips out of his Birckenstocks and wriggles his toes under a conference table during a recent interview. “And I have the ability to concentrate on one thing for hours on end.”

Those qualities will be important in his newest challenges: the Erickson School and the aging class. “Because we’re starting a school from scratch, I get to spend a lot of time developing courses, developing new ideas,” he said.

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