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What’s the secret to creating better, safer elder care?

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear nursing home? For a lot of people in Illinois, the first image may be one of institutionalization. Homes are places people go when there is nowhere else for them.

But there are a lot of things wrong with the institutional model. It can be costly. It isn’t particularly user friendly. It can also come to be more like a prison where neglect and abuse may flourish.

Such environments are caustic. We wish they didn’t exist, but they do. And if our loved ones don’t get the compassionate aid from thoughtful staff they are owed, victims deserve to have their rights and welfare protected. Initial consultations are typically free and services provided on a contingency fee basis.

There is a group working to change the way we think about aging. It’s called The Eden Alternative. Its core mission is to create a better quality of life for all seniors and their caregivers, wherever they may be.

On its face, the concept behind the system doesn’t radical. It’s grows out of the belief of founder Dr. Bill Thomas that the attitude about aging being fearful is so ingrained in culture that it is a self-fulfilling norm.

As he sees it, we can’t avoid aging. But he says growing old is a gift, as rich as childhood and working adulthood. He bases that opinion on his own work which has included breaking laws to restore a sense of humanity to the care facility setting.

He began changing environments in 1991 when he served as medical director at a nursing home in Upstate New York. To turn things from dull and dispirited to human again, he opted to violate state law and had staff bring in dogs, cats, chickens, rabbits and birds. Plants of all kinds followed, as did a day-care for staff children.

Over time, residents began to regain their spirits. Many began to need less direct care and began to venture out of their rooms for meals and socializing. Prescriptions were half what they were a control home. Residents lived longer, too.

To date, Thomas has seen his concept adopted at some homes in all 50 states and in some other countries, but it’s far from the norm. If it ever should get there, however, it seems safe to think it could help curb instances of nursing home abuse and neglect.