William Thomas, M.D., a 1982 SUNY Cortland graduate who has since become a tireless advocate for innovative, person-centered approaches to age, aging and longevity around the world, addressed the College’s most outstanding students on March 25.
Thomas of Ithaca, N.Y., delivered the keynote address at the President’s List Ceremony and Reception, an event honoring the College’s students earning the highest grade point averages the previous semester. The event was held in the Corey Union Function Room.
Thomas, the recipient of a 2000 honorary doctorate from SUNY Cortland, discussed “We Are Elders in the Making.”
In 2006, Thomas became part of the inaugural class of the SUNY Cortland Academic Hall of Fame, joining the ranks of the College’s alumni who graduated 10 or more years ago with magna cum laude or higher honors and who have made significant contributions to society through their chosen professions. The inductees, 10 at present, are recognized with a picture and plaque in a special display in the Old Main lobby.
Thomas grew up in Nichols, N.Y., where, by his own admission, he was an indifferent and bored high school student. Admitted after his high school principal asked the College’s admissions director to take a chance on the young man, he was the first person in his family to attend college. Thomas served as Cortland College Student Association president, contributed frequent articles to the student newspaper, and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in biology.
A very politically active student, Thomas ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Cortland. Perhaps his most lasting legacy as a student was to spearhead an effort to end the widespread practice in New York in which boards of elections would illegally bar students from registering to vote in local races by treating them as non-residents.
He earned his medical degree at Harvard Medical School, and did his post-graduate medical education at the University of Rochester’s Family Medicine residency. Although he initially focused on emergency room care, in 1991 he took a position as the medical director at an upstate nursing home. There, he pioneered the culture change methods and philosophy that would become known, worldwide, as “the Eden Alternative.” Outcomes of the project included a marked drop in infections and daily drug costs, sustained improvements in facility staff morale and highly significant improvements in the well being of elders.
Since it was founded in 1991, the Eden Alternative, his nonprofit organization based in Rochester, N.Y., has trained more than 23,100 associates and lists more than 300 registered nursing homes in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia. Over the past 20 years, the Eden communities have seen a 26 percent reduction in employee turnover, their patients have experienced lower infection rates, fewer clinical complications and a 15 percent lower death rate.
In the early 2000s he developed a new model of care that is designed to “make nursing homes obsolete.” These “Green Houses” are designed to meet the needs of frail elders with significant medical needs. With the aid of grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation totaling $15 million, he initiated the development of a model Green House Project in all 50 states.
A professor of aging studies at the University of Maryland’s prestigious Erickson School of Aging since 2007, Thomas writes award-winning and widely influential eldercare books and conducts training sessions to espouse the “Eden Alternative” and “Green Houses.”
In 1997, he received the America’s Award, established by Norman Vincent Peale and sometimes called “The Nobel Prize for Goodness.” In 2000, SUNY Cortland presented Thomas with an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at Commencement.
In 2006, he was awarded a prestigious Heinz Award for the Human Condition, named after the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania. Only five of the $250,000 awards are given each year to recipients the Heinz Family Foundation identifies through careful research. The Heinz Award is among the largest individual achievement prizes in the world.
Thomas and his wife and business partner, Judy Meyers-Thomas, have five children, Zachary, Virgil, Haleigh, Hannah and Caleb.