Karen Garloch

‘Aging: Life’s Most Dangerous Game’ offers new way to think of growing older

Dr. Bill Thomas on how to play 'Life's Most Dangerous Game'

"Aging: Life’s Most Dangerous Game" focuses on the possibility of growth late in life, even though the typical dementia story is one of loss and despair. The show uses original music, storytelling and games to convey the meaning of serious neurosc
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"Aging: Life’s Most Dangerous Game" focuses on the possibility of growth late in life, even though the typical dementia story is one of loss and despair. The show uses original music, storytelling and games to convey the meaning of serious neurosc

For 20 years, Dr. Bill Thomas, a Harvard-trained geriatrician, has worked to improve the way nursing home care is delivered. He has encouraged caregivers to treat “residents” as people who need care, not just patients who need treatment.

Today, about 300 long-term care centers across the country have adopted his “Eden Alternative” concept – to bring pets, children and plants into facilities to alleviate loneliness and boredom. Another 250 “Green Houses” incorporate his ideas into new construction, built for no more than 10 people, with kitchens and living rooms at the center, instead of nursing stations.

But change hasn’t come fast enough.

“I realized if I kept doing this for another 20 years, I was apt to be disappointed,” said Thomas, 56, of Ithaca, N.Y. “I came to understand that the issue went beyond long-term care. It’s about our culture and our society. It’s about ageism in our society.”

So he tried a drastic approach. He decided to use theater and become a performer.

He created “The Age of Disruption” – a 30-city tour that includes his one-act, 80-minute “non-fiction theater” performance, “Aging: Life’s Most Dangerous Game” – to inspire people to “disrupt” the way they think about aging.

On April 20, Thomas and his musical partner, Nate Silas Richardson, will stop in Charlotte, where they will also meet with local leaders, such as gerontologist Lyndall Hare, who are working to create “age-friendly communities.”

Tickets include two events, for $15 each, at Blumenthal Performing Arts, Booth Playhouse, 130 N. Tryon St.

From 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., the Disrupt Dementia workshop will focus on people living with dementia and their caregivers. Thomas will partner with Michael Rossatto-Bennett, director of the documentary “Alive Inside,” to offer what they call “transformation through the power of music and memory.” The workshop will also include the premiere of another documentary by Rossatto-Bennett.

From 7 to 8:30 p.m., Thomas and Richardson will perform “Aging: Life’s Most Dangerous Game,” focusing on the possibility of growth late in life, even though the typical dementia story is one of loss and despair.

The show uses original music, storytelling and games to convey the meaning of serious neuroscientific research about how the brain changes with age, Thomas said.

Not everything is as it seems. For example, in one part of the show, Thomas will flash numbers on a screen and challenge the audience to add the digits and shout out the answers. As the speed of the game accelerates, older people often find it hard to keep up. And the conventional wisdom is that “younger people do math in their head faster.”

But Thomas explained that recent research shows older people may be slower because they’re “developing the ability to extract more complex meanings out of situations and stories, and see narratives and stories at a deeper level than young people.”

That’s a good thing, he said. “If I gave you a choice of which one would you want, you’d say, ‘I want to see the story behind the story.’ 

In a recent phone interview, Thomas encouraged Charlotteans to come out and listen.

“I’m coming to town, and I’m asking Charlotte to take a chance on us,” he said. “(I challenge people) to just for an hour and a half, explore some new ways of thinking about what’s next in your life. I promise you’re going to come away excited, enthused and feeling good.”

Dr. Bill Thomas’ Age of Disruption Tour, April 20

▪ Theatrical performance: 7 to 8:30 p.m., “Aging: Life's Most Dangerous Game,” with musician Nate Silas Richardson.

▪ Workshop: 2:30-4:30 p.m., Disrupt Dementia, with documentary by the director of “Alive Inside.”

▪ Place: Blumenthal Performing Arts - Booth Playhouse, 130 N. Tryon St.

▪ Tickets: $15 for each event. https://drbillthomas.org/local/charlotte-nc/

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