I recently finished reading Second Wind by Dr. Bill Thomas, a geriatrician (a medical doctor specializing in aging). Dr. Thomas worked clinically with older patients for a number of years and became convinced that better avenues should be available to enable more meaningful lives for people as they age. Thus he co-created the Eden Alternative and The Green House Project as alternatives in eldercare.
In Second Wind (subtitled “Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper and More Connected Life”) Dr. Thomas posits a third stage of life called Elderhood, which chronologically and developmentally follows childhood and adulthood. Many sociologists, gerontologists, philosophers and others have reflected on the roles of elders in human society. Dr. Thomas makes a sharper distinction than most others by suggesting the elderhood needed today is pointedly different than adulthood and in fact requires a personal separation from adulthood in order to achieve its fulfillment.
While Second Wind references other cultures, geographical and historical, and their attitudes toward and treatment of elders, the book’s focus is on America and Baby Boomers.
Dr. Thomas takes the reader back fifty years and once there divides the boomer population into Squares, Activists and Hippies. Squares were the generally well-behaved traditionalists who inherited their values from their parents and grandparents. They worked hard, took responsibility and knew accomplished adulthood was their destiny. Activists concurred that adulthood was inevitable but wanted to shake things up in areas like civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, social justice. Hippies were the counterculturalists who tried to reject growing up and advancement into adulthood.
Squares were the dominant cohort. They won the culture wars and subsumed much of the Activists’ fervor. The Hippies were crushed.
The Squares victory led to what Dr. Thomas refers to as the “cult of adulthood” in which a person’s value is determined by his or her earning capability, productivity and effectiveness. Youthful vibrancy was highly valued and remains so today as contemporary adults pass their adult values on to their children.
As he examines aging boomers, Dr. Thomas again divides them into three groups. Denialists refuse to accept aging as inevitable and seek to remain forever young through diet, exercise, chemistry, surgery, transplants or whatever it takes. Realists understand and accept that age-related decline is inevitable and will take common sense steps to mitigate, moderate, delay and compensate for it. Enthusiasts not only understand and accept aging, they embrace it. In Dr. Thomas’s view, the Enthusiasts seek to outgrow adulthood and (as his book’s sub-title suggests) navigate to a slower, deeper, more connected life: Elderhood.
Dr. Thomas also developed a Second Wind Tour which visited 25 cities. I had the opportunity to be present at the Tour’s Hartford, Connecticut performance. This was not your typical book promotion event (although there were books for sale). This was more of an anti-ageism, slow down, reflect, connect, see the possibilities experience. There was music, singing and dancing. There was a showing of the Alive Inside film which explores the connections between music, identity and memory. It was a free four hour testament to the fact that Dr. Thomas wants to make a difference in people’s lives.
The Second Wind book does not provide a formula for dealing with aging, ageism or even becoming an Elder. It does however provide a well-constructed historical perspective on how we came to be where we are with respect to societal views on aging, and gives the reader (of any age) a lot to think about with respect to moving forward.
R. Kevin Price
© 2008-2014 R.K. Price