A Disruptive Tour Rolls Into The Berkshires
By Shawn Hartley Hancock
What if everything you know about aging is wrong?
It’s a provocative question that’s been asked loudly and publicly for the last few decades by Dr. Bill Thomas, a gerontologist and longevity expert. Thomas is on a mission to change the way we age and the way we think about age, and he’s making lots of noise in the process.
Thomas will bring his multi-media Age of Disruption Tour to Pittsfield, Mass. on May 17, to explain his philosophy and bring people together to address some of the questions many of us would rather ignore, or disavow. Part rock-and-roll-style bus tour, part old-fashioned barnstorming lecture series (in the vein of a Chautauqua program), Thomas and his crew — musicians, bartenders, drummers for the drum circle, and a host of community leaders — will take over the Colonial Theatre for a day-long, four-part event intended to focus attention on aging as well as give voice to people living with forgetfulness and cognitive change.
No one wants to think about getting older. Or, heaven forbid, getting old. If you listen to Bill Thomas, however, aging is not only inevitable, it’s a noble process that we need to honor. “Our aging and mortality are cornerstones of our humanity,” he says. “We are all elders in the making.”
The Berkshires, in particular, have a fast-growing population of older adults – already, 21 percent of the population here is over 65. Thomas is committed to making positive change where it relates to aging. In addition to new attitudes and norms, he wants American society to change its entire approach, which includes taking a cold look at our structure and practices around aging, how we can create new opportunities and engage in more research, review community policies and support and enable care-givers in new and transformative ways.
“Our life cycle has changed over the last 60 years,” says Celeste Roeller Harp, program manager for Age-Friendly Berkshires, a county-wide nonprofit responsible for bringing Thomas to our region. The Age-Friendly movement was created by the World Health Organization and AARP and is funded in Massachusetts by Tufts Health Plan Foundation. Harp is in the Berkshires on a two-year grant-funded mission to study how every community in the Berkshires can improve its approach to aging.
Laura Kittross of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and Celeste Roeller Harp accepting a statewide award for Age Friendly Berkshires.
“Baby boomers in particular are outliving their parents by decades and decades,” she says. “Why should the later stages of life be lonely and isolating? Life doesn’t end with your first gray hair. We’re taking a hard look at how to improve our communities for the very young and the very old. That starts with getting people civically engaged. More affluent people tend to stay engaged as they age, but people down the social ladder often tend to get isolated later in life. My hope is that people with mobility issues, the sort of older person who hasn’t left the house in years, will come to the program at the Colonial.”
The tour isn’t a sit-and-listen kind of event, either. In fact, Dr. Thomas and his crew arrive in a rock ‘n’ roll bus. The Age of Disruption Tour begins with an engaging workshop on dementia at 2:30 p.m. intended for caregivers. At 5 p.m., The Lobby Experience, a free event dedicated to community building, features food, a live band and a host of community resources. (There’s also a lunch event and continuing education workshops for CNA workers and nurses.)
The curtain for the main event, Life’s Most Dangerous Game, open at 7 p.m., with Thomas orchestrating. This mixed-media show starts with a light-hearted look at our culture’s perspective on normal aging — Thomas says it’s crazy — and then asks “what if?” Thomas covers all the bases, from life-extension quackery to caregiver stress, always returning to a call to action: what if we all lived in a world that saw aging not as a process of decline but rather as the entrée to life’s most dangerous game? “Aging can be re-imagined as a vivid and enlivening process that presents us with extraordinary risks and rewards,” he says.
Thomas says we deny the reality of our own aging (hair dye, anyone?), and coins a new term — elderhood — for those decades past normal adulthood, when our career and economic power start to diminish. Thomas wants to be its ambassador. “If you’re willing to outgrow adulthood, your life can still be real, rich, deep and meaningful. We need to deflate adulthood and use our hearts, minds and considerable skills to re-design our last decades.”
Some portions of the event are free and open to the public; others require tickets.