In the early 1990s, Dr. Bill Thomas, a geriatrician, began to develop a different concept of care for older adults. Dr. Thomas, along with his wife Jude, developed a philosophy of care called The Eden Alternative which is focused on a number of defined interventions to help address what they call the “three plagues of aging,” which are loneliness, helplessness and boredom.
One of the Eden Alternative’s early programs included the introduction of plants and animals into older adult settings, researching and proving that there was a positive effect on individuals when they had something to care for, something for which they were responsible. We use that approach in many ways, having plant programs for residents in the long term care setting, having both live animals and realistic, responsive stuffed animals in all of our settings.
The real impact of this became clear to us through an unfortunate incident a week or so ago. Alex, a tiny white Maltipoo (Maltese and miniature poodle) lived in our assisted living building with his owner, Joe. Joe, a widower, had Alex as his beloved and constant companion. Joe took him for walks as well as all over the building with him. Alex became known to everyone including residents, staff and visitors. A sweet dog, with a warm disposition, he was one of those dogs that make dog lovers out of everyone, even those who previously had a fear of dogs.
In a sad set of circumstances, Alex got out of the building and ran to play with another dog he spotted on the sidewalk. Between the other dog and Alex, however, was a busy street and the rest, as they say, is history. It was a major blow for Joe but it has also been a real loss for the other residents, staff and visitors. So many people have talked about how much they loved Alex, how they felt he was “their buddy,” how much his presence added to the building, how clearly he was a member of the family.
What Alex’s passing has really brought home to many of us is how true Dr. Thomas’ description of the plagues of aging is and how even simple things can make a difference in the quality of life for our older adults. While Alex was Joe’s companion and responsibility, everyone took an interest in him, connected with him, and were often entertained by his behavior and by his very presence.
Improving the lives of our older adults, enhancing the experiences of our loved ones, does not need to be complicated or involved. Yet it is easy to overlook, to forget that—at any age or stage—we all want to be engaged, have lives with meaning and purpose and be connected.