Speaker sets his sights on ‘disrupting’ aging in Pittsburgh

By Jenny Wagner | Published: Tuesday, May 5, 2015

(Reprinted with permission of the Beaver County Times.)

SWISSVALE — We don’t typically like our lives to be disrupted, David Fenoglietto, president and CEO of Lutheran SeniorLife, pointed out.

But in this context, the word disrupt has a positive connotation. It’s exactly what Dr. Bill Thomas wants to do to the traditional concepts of aging, beginning in Pittsburgh.

The author and gerontologist met with Fenoglietto and other professionals from a variety of fields and organizations, including long-term care, higher education, development, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Partnership for Aging and AARP, to find out what needs to change — or be disrupted — in this area.

The meeting at Community Living and Support Services (CLASS) was held in advance of a TED talk-like performance by Thomas on Monday night in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, hosted by Lutheran SeniorLife.

Thomas said he researched the word before naming the series of talks in 30 cities across the country the “Age of Disruption” tour.

“It means to tear asunder, and I thought, I’m willing to tear asunder the conventional views of aging,” Thomas said.

Some of those conventional views pointed out at the meeting included the attitude that youth is something to celebrate and older age is something to dread, and that we have to deal with the groups separately. Another was the idea behind what Thomas referred to as “the call” — the call or calls that often are made after a health issue or other major event in an older person’s life.

“We have a whole system designed after the call, but what happens before the call? It’s kind of foggy,” Thomas said, noting that he doesn’t have a specific goal for the meetings beyond collecting input from people across the country.

Rochester Manor and Villa Executive Director Kristin Goldstrom also pointed out the need to change the experience of working in a nursing home, and attract young people to care positions.

“How do we make that attractive to them?” she asked.

In addition to a physical renovation completed last year, Goldstrom said Rochester Manor has been focusing on changing how care is delivered by involving front-line staff more and turning to them for solutions.

“It’s that workforce that’s going to carry us through,” she said. “It’s all about the people and the training and getting away from a task-based job, to this is life — life happening.”

Goldstrom went to school to be an administrator because she wanted to change the concept of what a nursing home is, and Thomas said innovative long-term-care providers have recognized the need for that change in order to survive when older adults have options beyond just “a bed in a double room in an institution.”

“I’m not going to shut down nursing homes; people with choices are going to shut down nursing homes,” Thomas said after the meeting.

Crediting people such as those who attended, Thomas said he believes Pittsburgh has a chance to be the first city in the country to leave what he calls the legacy of institutionalization behind.

“The future of aging is all about neighborhoods and community, and the city of Pittsburgh has an extraordinary heritage of that kind of fabric of local community. It’s a big city, but it has this connective tissue of local community that makes change possible,” he said.

That’s going to take a lot of new models of long-term-care services and supports, such as Green House Project homes, which Lutheran SeniorLife expects to construct soon in Lawrence County; Village to Village Networks, where residents remain in their own homes; and the new Evermore Wellness Centers, which are multistory buildings that can serve many purposes, including offering care, connecting people to wellness and care, and connecting people to each other. Thomas said he hopes the first Evermore center will be built in Pittsburgh.

No matter the model used, Thomas said they all must focus on keeping older people connected to their families and communities.

“That’s the most important thing,” he said. “We’ve built a system that often disconnects older people from their families and communities. … And how we connect them, a lot of that has to be figured out and developed and imagined and created. There’s no ‘just add water.’ There’s no quick fix available.”