What are old people for?

“What are old people for?”

In 2004, a physician named Dr. Bill Thomas asked that question in a best selling book “What are old people for? How Elders will save the world”   Dr. Thomas and his merry band of age disrupters were recently in the Pacific Northwest promoting their Disrupt Aging event.  The stop in Eugene, Oregon was their 110th show.

I am convinced!  Elders will save the world!

It was a  first-of-its-kind event! This immersive and transformational non-fiction theater wove film, music and first-person stories with groundbreaking research. We were challenged to re-frame aging. Dr. Bill asks “What if?” What if everything we knew about aging was wrong?

We invited 88-year-old Mary, who lives at Shorewood Senior Living in Florence Oregon to come to the event that began with a lunch with Dr. Thomas sponsored by AARP. The lunch group was small, giving us quality time with Dr. Thomas asking questions and sharing our passion for being part of a movement to disrupt aging in America.  Mary had learned about Dr. Thomas a few years ago when her husband read about how forward thinking Dr. Thomas was as a world renowned Geriatrician. She was thrilled to meet him in person, as her husband had passed away just 8 months ago at the age of 92.  As Dr. Thomas put his arms around Mary she told him,  “My husband is here looking down on us right now.”  Mary and her husband had embraced a vibrant elderhood together.

We asked Mary to share her experience with us.  She was thrilled to spend this time with Dr. Thomas, and he was honored that she blessed him with her presence!

Mary and Dr T

Mary meets Dr. Thomas.

“When I  was asked if I would be interested in attending a program called Changing Aging by Dr. Bill Thomas in Eugene, Oregon on May 5th, I had heard about the doctor and his specialty in geriatrics. Dr. Thomas was on his “Changing Aging” tour across America.

My first thought was to turn down the offer to attend because it would require sitting in a car for almost an hour to reach Eugene, Oregon and being an elderly woman in my 88th year, the thought of my stiffening body getting out of a car after an hour was not particularly appealing for the start of a long day in town.

My curiosity overcame my thoughts of wondering if I could tolerate the long day ahead knowing that we wouldn’t get back to Florence until almost ten at night.

I am happy to say that the day was a wonderful experience reinforcing what thoughts I had about my aging process. Thinking about all the clichés one could think of, Dr. Thomas fulfilled all of them—“ hit the nail on the head” and others.

He did it with lovely entertainment—stories and wonderful music along with fabulous electronics, the latter, no doubt, standard equipment of this era to the younger generation. As I got into the car to return home, I realized that I wasn’t as tired as I expected to be, I hadn’t thought much about my frailties. I had done something different this day. I had started to do what Dr. Thomas’ program was all about. I was disrupting aging!”

Dr. Thomas is taking his tour to the East Coast in June.  Check out his schedule.

It is truly an amazing social experiment and we were honored to be a part of it!  See the short video below.

jean-garbodenAbout the Author: Jean Garboden is the Director of Education and Innovation at Compass Senior Living, located in Eugene Oregon. Jean is an Elder Advocate and Eden Alternative Educator with over 30 years’ experience in not-for-profit and for-profit health care organizations. She is honored to lead the mission and values culture development for Compass Senior Living. Jean lives in Las Vegas, Nevada where she enjoys the weather and volunteers with the Nevadans for the Common Good, advocating for caregivers and elders in southern Nevada.

Disrupting Aging

Slow down….and listen. They said. Turn your cell phones on. They said. Share with the world what is happening. After 110 performances on Changing Aging’s Disrupt Aging live theater event, held recently in Eugene, Oregon, its hard to imagine this formula not working to get people’s attention. The message: its time we change how we think about aging.

Changing Aging attendance group 2JPG
Compass Senior Living crew attending the Changing Aging event (from left): Amira, Kory, Beth, Jean, Becca, Niki. (Catherine and Mary not pictured)

The day started with a small group lunch with Dr. Bill Thomas, geriatrician and founder of The Eden Alternative. The group of about 20 were all there for various reasons–from AARP representatives to an elder currently living in a senior community. Dr. Thomas has started what he calls #AskDrBill– an egalitarian way of answering everyone’s hardest questions about aging (for which he specifically asks).

I asked the hardest question I knew about aging: aging comes with loss, how do you ‘be okay’ with not being able to do everything that you used to be able to do? To which Dr. Bill gave his words of wisdom based on his experience, “Change comes with loss, not just aging. If you looked at your checkbook the same way, you’d only record the expenses but not the income. And, that’s not an accurate picture of what your finances look like. Pay attention to the ‘other side’ of the ledger book. We pay attention to the loss and not what is to be gained with the change.”

Gain with the change. The biggest ‘aha’ moment as he said this was not the metaphor of the ledger book–although that is a great metaphor for how one can look at what life throws at you–it was that aging is just change. And, we have lots of change in our lives. So, why is this change so different from the others? It needs flexibility, resiliency, thoughtfulness, and planning. Like any change that life throws our way. Its all between our ears in the way the change is framed.

Disrupt Dementia–The Momentia Movement. The afternoon transitioned into a “non-fiction theater” event as the Changing Aging crew calls it. The group performed two simultaneous tales of a Ugandan refugee and those living with dementia. The Ugandan refugee, Samite (pronounced SA-me-tay), performs the music that he composes as his journey inspires him and life’s challenges, and changes, come his way; as he rebuilds his life. Similarly, the stories told by the elders living with dementia, in their own words, tell the tale of changes that come to them, but how they are inspired to continue on their journey as life throws these particular changes into their own paths. It’s a heart-wrenching, but necessary, truth about how those living with dementia are doing just that–living— and it is up to us to help them adapt and keep living.

Disrupt Aging. As the evening progressed, a second performance blended myth and science; challenging us to re-frame aging. Dr. Bill asks “what if?” What if everything we knew about aging was wrong? Accompanied with music, storytelling, and, yes, audience participation games, we learned that there is no such thing as a “senior moment”. We all simply have a “filing cabinet” and, as we get older, the filing cabinet is more full–and more messy– and it just takes a little longer to find what we are looking for. What’s more, older brains have the power of gist. Older brains have the power to see patterns and pull from past experience to understand what is being explained and, well, you get the gist. Dr. Bill challenged us to stop perpetuating the myth of the senior moment. “Social change starts between the ears,” says Dr. Thomas. Just like racism and sexism, ageism persists when we tacitly agree to ageist comments and jokes by not saying anything. When we let it go, we imply that its okay to perpetuate myths on aging and see elders as declining. The Changing Aging tour is challenging us to perceive aging as a vivid and enlivening process that presents us with extraordinary risks, and rewards. 

We are all getting older and will be considered old, if we aren’t already. How will you approach this change?


Related posts and resources:

I have a 20-year old brain in an old body

Elderhood–what do we want to do with another 30 years?

Human connection–at the core of everything that matters in the world

My shrinking world

Featured image photo courtesy of Changingaging.org.

About the Author: Amira T. Fahoum is the Director of Marketing and Director of Operations, Northwest Region for Compass Senior Living located in Eugene, Oregon. Her path to senior living started when she simply decided to be open to possibilities in life. Possibilities are what led her to what is now a career in serving elders and families. Possibilities also led her into the world of becoming a Certified Eden Associate, Certified Validation Worker, Levels I and II, and a licensed Assisted Living Administrator in Oregon. On her journey with Compass, she has found true reward in working with, and for, the people that care for others. She lives in Eugene with her husband, Michael, where they enjoy golf, travel, and volunteering.