The Harvard Doctor Who Changed Nursing Homes Forever

by DailyHealthPost Editorial

nursing homes

In 1991, Dr. Thomas became medical director of an elder-care facility in upstate New York. He told an interviewer from the Washington Post:


“the place [was] depressing, a repository for old people whose minds and bodies seemed dull and dispirited.” (3)\

From Thomas’ point of view, the concept of interdependence among generations-so intrinsic to his own up-bringing-“runs smack dab into the idea that old age is a train wreck and that older people are not contributing, that they’re a burden on us.” He decided to change that notion, beginning with the retirement home under his direction.


By their very nature, senior facilities foster isolation of individuals, taking from them their autonomy, privacy, and links to the past that come with the absence of people and possessions accumulated throughout their lives.

The result can be loneliness, depression, illness, and even premature death. (4, 5) But who’s to say the big institutional model is the only way to care for the oldest of us? There must be other options.

The Eden Alternative

Deemed “the Eden Alternative”, Thomas introduced dogs, cats, parakeets, hens, rabbits, and vegetable and flower gardens to his facility. In addition, on-site day care was added for children of staff so residents could interact with young ones.


The approach is based on the idea that caring for another living thing provides one with a purpose for living, which in turn raises the spirits and makes one feel productive and independent. Living in garden surroundings is much more pleasant (and healthy) than living in a rigid institution.

While bringing the animals into the building broke a New York law, the result of his experiment proved worth it: within a short time, many people began to dress themselves, leave their rooms, and resume normal eating habits.