caught up with Thomas at a sit-down discussion with students from The Erickson
School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Question 1: Can ageism truly be eradicated?
Thomas: We are
hard-wired to have a keen appreciation of youth. Appreciation of age is a
cultivation of taste. It’s also a cultural construct that is delicate and
beautifully artificial. It’s an authentically human creation that perceives the
value of people that are not young. Ageism is a structured part of our
humanity. What makes us amazing is that we can rise above it.
Question 2: How do we encourage younger people to go into the aging
currently in the aging field are freaks—they grew up around older people and
cultivated a taste for them. They get it. Outside of the field, it’s hard to
do. Outsiders see only tasks, they miss that ethereal dimension. With the tour,
we are attempting to cultivate relationships with university students and
younger students. We address to them the illusions of youth and explode myths
of age, which makes sense to them. I see two solutions: 1.) get better at
finding who had these great relationships with older people, or 2.) show people
a new story. We need to tell the story
of aging and how people can come and get into the field. We need to promise
them that we will deal with it differently.
Question 3: What is the best way to combat ageism?
Grateful Dead never [intentionally] made a Top 40 hit, they played music for
the people. What happened around them was a function of their authenticity to
music, not because they persuaded you to do anything. I don’t speak as an authority. I say, “I am
old.” You can believe what you want. A directive approach is not for me. What
you chose to do is up to you. To live an authentic life, you will acknowledge
that time changes you. If you refuse, you wake up and one day more you’re
inauthentic. It doesn’t allow who you are now. If you stand up and say, “I am
young, look at me. I can do these things,” that’s disgusting because it’s
someone doing things not the way they are. Society punishes women terribly on
aging and the pressure to be perfect and young. I get a break through race,
gender, and age. If a guy like me can’t say and own his age, who’s got a
chance? We live in an ageist society. You have to be careful and thoughtful.
I’ve given up that change will come from inside the field. It’s been given
every possibility. Change will come from the outside, and that’s where I will
be. [Ironically, “Touch of Grey” made it to the Top 40.]
Question 4: Your daughters taught you about mortality. What have you
learned that you can share with us to help us recognize our own mortality?
Thomas: My wife
and I have five children: three tall boys and two girls with Ohtahara syndrome.
They live lives at the developmental age of one month. From the day they were
born they required round the clock care. They have blindness and seizures, are quadriplegic,
and can’t speak—imagine a person with Alzheimer’s in the furthest stage down
the road. It taught me about grievance in a horrifyingly painful way. Although
I was trained and have faith in medicine there was nothing medicine can do.
Hannah made it to 18. Haley is 21. Did I grieve less even though I believe in
medicine? No. You have to acknowledge that two of your children will never
speak your name, touch your face. All the griefs come and you soon settle into
a new normal. You can always find your place to a new normal. There’s always
changing to be a new normal. Haley will pass. I think of this in terms of my
aging. We, too, will experience a new series of normal. That’s pretty good
Question 5: What keeps you motivated?
Thomas: A volcano
lives inside of me. Volcanoes are always bubbling hot. People use phrase “burning
ambition,” I have that. I didn’t ask for it. I don’t have burning ambition to
be rich, famous, or powerful. I have a burning ambition to somehow do what I
can so people of all ages can be regarded with dignity and authenticity. As a
geriatrician, I was the top ant of the anthill. People told me, “If you walk
away, you will lose all the prestige and credibility.” If there’s a volcano
within you, it’s not a choice. You can’t stay there. You’ve got to go. I live
on a bus six-eight weeks a year. It’s the easiest thing. And it even makes the
volcano burn less.
Jackie Oberst is Provider’s managing editor. Email her at
firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow the magazine on Twitter @ProviderMag.