From Aged to Agency.

April 18, 2023

From Aged to Agency.

May 29, 2023

Dr. Bill Thomas has been a thought partner of mine since before I wrote “Wisdom@Work.” For those who know his story, he was appointed the medical director of a nursing home in upstate New York more than 30 years ago, which he described as “a repository for old people whose minds and bodies seemed dull and dispirited.”

It was God’s waiting room, a lifeless place full of the aged but with little agency. He saw that the system took away the elderly’s responsibility because it believed they couldn’t handle it: no household plants, no pets, no fun.

Bill chose to break the rules. He brought in dogs, cats, hens, rabbits, and about 100 parakeets, as well as hundreds of plants, all for the residents to take care of. The results were transformational. Caring for another life (life itself) gave his residents a sense of autonomy and creativity, brought them out of their “dull and dispirited” slumber, and filled them with a sense of purpose. The cost of running the home plummeted, and so did the death rate.

What lesson can we take from Bill’s experimentation? As we age, we need agency. We need something that can give us a reason for living. In other words, without me being here, my dog would starve, my plants would wither, my grandchild wouldn’t have a reading partner, and my neighborhood wouldn’t have a community garden. Having a purpose doesn’t necessarily mean gaining fame or fortune. It means finding meaning in offering a little care to something or someone that relies upon you. At a time of life when we worry about being a bother to others, it’s reassuring to know that we can be the caregiver, not just the care-receiver.

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