Don't take aging lying down. That's one of the messages offered by Dr. Bill Thomas, a Harvard-educated physician and author who tours the United States with a stage performance aimed at changing the way seniors see themselves and their lives. His tour, "Age of Disruption: Life's Most Dangerous Game," stopped earlier this month in Tampa. LifeTimes interviewed Thomas, 56, by phone while he was headed to Fort Lauderdale for his final performance of the year.
What is your primary message for a tour called "Age of Disruption"?
I advocate for a new approach to aging. I'm filled with passion that we all deserve a new perspective on this time of life.
AARP has a "Life Reimagined" program, for which you help develop content. What does "life reimagined" mean?
For the past 20 years, I've been really big on reforming long-term care. I poured myself into it. After 20 years, I realized I hadn't made enough progress. I began to realize a big part of the problem wasn't just long-term care but society's attitude toward aging.
And as a result?
I changed my career toward this public campaign to "disrupt aging."
How do you change society's attitude toward aging?
Everybody walks around with a little "map" in their heads. It tells them how they are supposed to live: They will grow up, work, retire. I came to realize the map was wrong. We have to redraw or reimagine what retirement means.
Is that what your performance seeks to do?
Yes. That's "Life's Most Dangerous Game." The theme of the performance is that we expose our illusions about youth and we expose our illusions about age and we show people that new possibilities are part of their lives every step of the way.
Do you just talk or lecture during the 90 minutes?
I perform on stage with a musician. It's really fun. We combine mythology, neurology, science, history, biology and music all together to help people reimagine their own life possibilities.
Why do you call your performance "nonfiction theater"?
It's a show rather than a lecture. There are lights and costumes and we have multimedia. The musician plays drums, West African instruments, guitar, trumpet and mandolin. We're actually performing. We use all the dramatic elements that go into great theater. We're communicating a very real message about reimagined aging.
Why so much theatrics? Why not just lecture?
When you're trying to get people to think a really new way, it helps to communicate with new tools.
How is reimagining age dangerous?
I expose the illusion that youth is perfect. Youth is beautiful in many ways, but it's not perfect. The problem with thinking youth is perfect is that everything that follows must therefore be in decline. It's dangerous to let go of what's familiar, to let go of what you've always done, to choose to do something new that you might or might not succeed at.
So youth isn't perfection?
We grow and change and develop across the entire life span, not just when we are young. Growing is part of our journey every step of the way. As we age, we have even more life possibilities because we have more choices, more experience, more life skills.
Do we blame society for the wrong message?
As we age, our culture says to us, "Your best days are behind you. Better put those dreams aside." Culture is wrong.
How have you reimagined your life now that you are in your 50s?
I have gone from giving lectures to doctors and nurses to these performances. One of the things I do on stage is music. I sing. It scares the hell out of me. It's making me more brave than at other (times) in my life. I'm a doctor. I'm not a musician. I perform mainly to show people you can face down your fear and try new stuff.
What kind of audience are you reaching?
We really have a most diverse audience. In Tampa, we had a 3-month-old baby and people in their 90s. We see on social media that a lot of people in their 20s are attending.
Will you be back in the Tampa Bay area again?
Yes, in 2016 and 2017, as long as my health holds out. Tampa and St. Petersburg are part of the story of aging in America. There are some "aging radicals" in Tampa. We'll be back.
Contact Fred W. Wright Jr. at [email protected]