William H. Thomas, MD

Developing a replication strategy for nursing home alternatives

    • January 25, 2007

Often called a visionary, although he prefers the term iconoclast, William H. Thomas, MD, is not one to accept the status quo.

This energetic, unconventional Harvard-trained physician has come up with a long list of ideas for reforming elderly care—all aimed at not just enriching the lives of seniors but also allowing seniors to enrich the lives of their juniors.

"Aging and the aged are not, as so often supposed, the cause of our problems—they are and always have been the source of answers we need," he writes in What are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World—one of his several books on aging.

After creating the Green House model as a small-home alternative to the traditional nursing home, Thomas took on another ambitious project. He is now developing a global network of intergenerational "intentional communities" designed to promote interaction among residents of all ages.

Eldershire™ is the name of this newest venture. The first Eldershire community, named Avalon, broke ground in May 2006 on a rural plot near Thomas's home in Sherburne, N.Y. His plans call for constructing 30 interconnected log homes surrounding a common building.

Not only does he have big ideas—he "flies at 30,000 feet," RWJF program officer David Colby says of Thomas's outside-the-box approach—he has a talent for convincing people to support those ideas. In 2002, he won a fellowship from Ashoka, an organization that identifies leading social entrepreneurs around the world.

In 2006, U.S. News & World Report recognized Thomas as one of the nation's 25 "best" leaders—a group chosen for the magazine by a panel of judges assembled by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The magazine called Thomas "creative and wildly exuberant"—a description that, by all accounts, is accurate, although the addition of tireless would seem to be warranted as well.

As if creating new models of elderly care, writing books and making speaking tours weren't enough, Thomas and Judith Meyers-Thomas, his wife and partner, operate a 258-acre farm, retreat center and country inn. They have five children, including two daughters born with a rare neurological condition.