Senator John Heinz

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The Heinz Awards

2006

William Thomas

Dr. William Thomas receives the Heinz Award in the Human Condition for his work to transform long-term care for our aging population into vibrant, livable habitats rather than facilities for the frail.

A visionary reformer and founder of the Eden Alternative, Dr. Thomas has championed a movement that has turned antiseptic, dreary nursing homes into vibrant centers of care and companionship. His "Edenization" of long-term care environments is systematically overhauling the institutional nature of assisted-living facilities throughout the nation and improving the quality of life for countless older adults.

Following graduation from Harvard Medical School, Dr. Thomas began his medical career at an upstate New York nursing home. He soon became aware of the pervasive unhappiness of its residents, and he concluded that most residents suffered from three plagues-loneliness, helplessness and boredom. The facilities themselves were serving more as hospitals, interacting with residents strictly on a medical level, rather than as homes. With his diagnosis in hand, Dr. Thomas set out to resuscitate the industry in 1991 with the creation of the Eden Alternative.

The Eden Alternative seeks to alter the experience of the aging, a demographic segment in this country that numbers 35 million people and is expected to double by 2030. The organization is built on the principle that an elder-centered community be committed to creating a human habitat where life revolves around contact with the living world and a sense of meaning and purpose in life. By creating coalitions of people-staff and residents working together - Dr. Thomas' organization is creating environments where residents are healthier and happier.

To date, more than 300 nursing homes across the country have been "Edenized" with bright decor, gardens, pets, and on-site day care and playgrounds for kids. The approach allows residents to participate in the care of other living things, and the new homes have greatly improved the lives of residents and staff alike. Over the last 15 years, Eden communities have seen reduced employee turnover, patients experiencing lower infection rates and a lower mortality rate.

Dr. Thomas has taken his concept even further with the creation of "Green Houses," small community residences that meet all the quality standards of a highly regulated industry within a setting that feels like home. The first four Green Houses opened in Mississippi in 2003, and more are planned in all 50 states over the next five years.

With contagious enthusiasm and an unwavering vision, Dr. William Thomas has helped bring dignity, joy and love into an environment that has been too long lacking in these essential human qualities. As America continues to age, his transformation of our system of long-term care provides a timely prescription for the care of generations to come.

Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.

Speech

11/14/2006 - Acceptance Speech

Well I'm proud to be here and I've thought about what I wanted to say to you and I think the thing the most important thing I could say to you is that all progress in the human condition relies upon our ability to recognize and understand the difference between the way things are and the way things ought to be. Once we see that difference we're given an opportunity to use our skills, our talents to pursue excellence in closing that gap.

And you know I understand very well that perfection is not within our reach, but I also know that to act in this world on behalf of compassion, and love, and tenderness, and dignity is why we are here. We're placed here to pursue excellence in those acts and in those moments.

And the last thing I want to say is that I'm sometimes asked, being a geriatrician, what are the keys to a good old age? People want to know. And one of the most important things I tell people is to be grateful. And so I am grateful to my mother and father. I am grateful to my beloved wife. I am grateful to my children. I am grateful to all those who have joined us and put their shoulder to the stone and changed the world for long-term care.

Thank you.
William Thomas
William Thomas