Dr. Bill Thomas to bring "Age of Disruption" tour to Pittsfield


This story has been modified to clarify that "The Lobby Experience" is for tour participants and event sponsors, and to correct Bobbie Orsi's title.

Dr. Bill Thomas is on a mission to redefine aging.

Ten years ago, the Harvard-trained geriatrician closed his successful medical practice; now he crosses the country in a rock 'n' roll tour bus that will pull up to the Colonial Theatre on Tuesday with plans to shake up attitudes toward aging in the Berkshires.

Through his "Age of Disruption" tour, Thomas hopes to change the way individuals and society approach aging, just as he led a radical rethinking of elder and dementia care and long term nursing homes during his 20 year medical career.

Thomas grew up close to grandparents in a multigenerational family.

"Because I spent a lot of time with older people when I was young, I've always felt very comfortable with the idea of aging, which made me a natural fit for geriatrics," he said.

"I learned that ageism has a powerfully negative impact on older people," he said in a phone interview from an airport in Indianapolis. "The whole doctor in a white coat role reinforces the negative messaging around the medicalization of old age."

He regards the golden years — "elderhood" he calls it — as not the end of usefulness and purpose, but a chance to slow down from the frenzy of adulthood and embrace new possibilities.

Tuesday's three-part program begins at 2:30 p.m. with "Disrupting Dementia," a public workshop for people with dementia and their care partners that includes a documentary by award-winning "Alive Inside" director Michael Rossato-Bennett, along with interactive live music and engagement experiences.

At 5 p.m., "The Lobby Experience" will be held to allow tour participants and event sponsors to share resources.

A drum circle will be held in the lobby prior to Thomas's signature event, "Aging: Life's Most Dangerous Game," which begins at 7 p.m.

In an energetic one-man presentation he describes as "nonfiction theater," Thomas introduces insights into aging and care through a multimedia mix of music, mythology, storytelling, poetry, art and humor. He is accompanied by musician Nate Silas Richardson playing multiple instruments including bodhran, guitar, harmonica, trumpet and the west African stringed kora.

"The idea is to help people feel new feelings about themselves and the world they live in," Thomas said. "That is the beginning of personal and cultural change."

Heeding his own advice to take risks and explore new possibilities, Thomas, 56, decided "to follow my muse and stop being a practicing doctor, and start being a wandering minstrel."

"Part of what we're encouraging people to do is grab a hold of their dreams," he said. "I always wanted to perform live, play music and sing and tell stories, and so that's what I do."

So far this year, he has taken his message from California to the Carolinas. In June he heads to Canada, and later in the year to the United Kingdom for his first overseas tour.

Thomas was invited to Pittsfield by Bobbie Orsi, director of community relations at Home Instead Senior Care and a co-chairwoman of Age-Friendly Berkshires, a countywide effort to adopt resolutions, policies and practices geared toward shaping a culture and resources that better support people of all ages. Age-Friendly Berkshires is hosting the event.

"He's an innovator," she said. "He's done some amazing work in changing the culture around nursing home care."

"Demographically we have a huge age boom here with a large population of older adults over 65," she said.

Orsi realized that, in order to be successful, the community needed to think about how people perceived aging.

"Basically the soundtrack in our head about getting old is that it's about loss — eyesight, vision, ability to walk, cognitive ability," she said. "We're trying to shake that up and change it."

Her research led her to Thomas and his book "Second Wind," where he poses the question, "What is going to happen as you get to the second half of your life?"

"I'm 60 so it was very personal to me," she said. "Because people are living longer we can expect to spend 20 years in retirement. Boomers are used to contributing and being engaged and having opinions and doing things that are meaningful in our community.

"It's essential we start to change the way of thinking around what it means to age in the Berkshires," she said. "I think he's the best person to help us do that."

"We're entering a new golden age of aging," Thomas said, "much more oriented toward growth and development with less of an obsession with decline. Overall, we're headed toward an old age that's maybe going to be the best that humanity has ever known."

There has never been a better time in life to take risks, he said.

"The dangerous thing is not living that dream and letting it go by," he said. "So what I'm trying to say to people is, live dangerously."

If you go ...

What: Age of Disruption Tour with Dr. Bill Thomas

Where: Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield

When: Tuesday afternoon, evening

2:30 - 5 p.m. Part 1: "Disrupting Dementia" Cost: $15.

5 - 6:30 p.m. Part 2: "The Lobby Experience" Cost: Free

7 - 8:30 p.m. Part 3: "Aging: Life's Most Dangerous Game" Cost: $15

Tickets: www.drbillthomas.org and Home Instead Senior Care (413) 442-0907


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