Home Catalog Ordering News and Reviews

Life Worth Living
How Someone You Love Can Still Enjoy Life in a Nursing Home
The Eden Alternative in Action

by William H. Thomas, M.D.

From Chapter 4: The First Eden Alternative (continued)

Mr. L. was admitted to the nursing home just before we began work on the Eden Alternative. I remember greeting him for the first time as I was leaving the building after making rounds. He was walking up to the entrance, his son by his side. Tall but thin, Mr. L. used a cane that he seemed to have more for balance than for support. I told him to make himself at home and that I would see him in the morning for a history and a physical examination. The next day, he told me that his wife of more than sixty years had passed away three months before. He had been living alone and had begun to have a hard time sleeping. He had lost interest in food and found himself depending on his children for more and more of his daily needs. The crisis came when he ran his car into a ditch. His injuries were minor, but he was admitted to the hospital, and arrangements were swiftly made for nursing home placement. As I listened, I wondered how this man had survived at all. Events of the past three months had shattered his world. He had lost his wife, his home, his freedom, and, perhaps worst of all, his sense that his continued existence meant something. The joy of life was gone for him.
His family told me that the police suspected his accident had most likely been a suicide attempt. He had tried to kill himself in order to avoid a life of dependence in a nursing home. With his failure, he found himself truly condemned. He was a resident.
We did our best to treat his depression and to encourage, cajole, and assist him, but nothing seemed to help. First, he gave up on walking. Then he refused to eat and became confined to his bed. At this time, the Eden Alternative began to take root. We offered Mr. L. a pair of parakeets to keep by his bedside. He agreed, with the indifference of a person who knows he will soon be gone.
The changes were subtle at first. Mr. L. would position himself in bed so that he could watch the activities of his new charges. Then he began to offer comments to the people who came in to care for them. These comments grew into bits of advice on what the birds liked and how they seemed to be doing. He was hooked. The parakeets were drawing his spirit slowly back into the realm of the living.
He began eating again, dressing himself, and getting out of his room. The dogs needed a walk every afternoon, and he let us know that he was the man for the job. His condition rapidly improved. His children once again saw the sparkle in his pale blue eyes. Three months later, it was our turn to be sad as we watched him pack his belongings and move back home. The Eden Alternative had saved his life.
Any nursing home that commits itself to the eradication of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom and that begins to build its own habitat, can see these marvelous kinds of stories unfold. All that's required is that staff members steel themselves for the work of change. Standard assumptions about what a nursing home is and what it means to live or work in one must be discarded, and a new vision must be embraced. The Eden Alternative is a new way of thinking about nursing homes—the principles of ecology and anthropology substitute for those of medical science and bureaucracy.
Can we show that the Eden Alternative exerts a measurable impact on the institution and on those who live and work within it? Yes. Our research has led us to hypothesize the existence of an "Eden Alternative Effect." . . .
© VanderWyk & Burnham. All Rights Reserved.