Therapeutic Hens Have Seniors Talking Turkey
“Having chickens in the backyard is like looking at the ocean,” says Terry Golson in an article published in the Boston Globe earlier this year.
Terry should know.
She’s been raising hens nearly all of her adult life, and recently introduced a group of them to Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley , a nursing home in Littleton, Massachusetts, with an abundance of memory care residents. Life Care Center now boasts a complete hen house. It’s animal therapy taken to a whole new level.
Life Care has always been supportive of four-legged (and, now, feathered) residents, and the 40-acre nursing home keeps goats, llamas and even an alpaca on the land, as well as a house cat to receive snuggles and behind-the-ear-scratches from residents. But no one quite expected the reception the chickens would receive.
Golson recalls one incident in particular, which exemplifies the reaction of the nursing home residents’ to the hens. “I watched as one of the nursing home employees wheeled a resident past the coop. The resident has dementia and was angry and agitated. I could tell the caregiver had little patience left, although she was doing her best to be kind and gentle. As they came upon the chickens, the resident had a moment of respite. She calmed as she looked at the hens. Her caregiver was able to a take a deep breath and relax. It lasted all of 30 seconds, but it made a positive difference in their day.”
Golson credits chickens with having “chatty, optimistic personalities.” She says, “They’re innately funny, so just being around them makes me, and many other people, smile.”
The chickens at Life Care Center reside in a coop overlooking a large picture window in the center, permitting residents to take a break and watch the chickens without the ordeal of venturing outside. “I helped to site the coop so that the residents could enjoy it from windows and wheelchairs, and yet it was in a spot that was also good for the chickens,” Golson tells SeniorLiving.net.
Raising Chickens, Nothing to Cluck At
Golson provides an information packet for other senior communities interested in raising chickens, and one of her many services is setting up the coop and providing the chickens, but warns that the commitment the nursing home must make is serious. “These are living animals that need consistent, year-round, daily care. They have life cycles and will get old. They will get sick. You have to commit to all of it,” she says.
However, Golson stays in touch, helping make sure the chickens thrive. At Life Care Center, she created a set-up that permitted the staff to care for the flock without adding additional employees. She also made sure there was electricity for an automatic door closer and the heat pad for the water in the winter, and that the placement of the coop allowed for easy access for cleaning, feeding and watering. She notes, “Creating the right structure from the beginning was essential to their long-term care. Since the hens are confined full-time to their pen, I made sure that the coop and surroundings were adequate in size, and provide everything the birds need to be healthy and happy.”
She trains nursing home staff in caring for the flock, and even drops in occasionally to make sure everything is going well. Ultimately, the residents, too, will care for the birds, which are named after the mothers and grandmothers of five of the residents.
Chickens for Memory Care
Studies have yet to be done on the effects of chickens-resident interaction, but circumstantial evidence definitely shows the chickens have a calming effect on Alzheimer’s patients. Life Care Center already has a lower incidence of antipsychotic drugs than many other nursing homes, and staff attributes it to the other farm animals on site.
Commenting on how much there is to love about chickens, Golson sings the praises of the birds in an email interview with SeniorLiving.net: “They are a domestic farm animal that can fit into many people’s urban and suburban lives. There’s something special about domestic farm animals. They’re productive and industrious, and have evolved and been bred to live closely with humans, so they interact and pay attention to the people in their midst.”
Attention, interaction and calming, repetitive yet productive, activity. A chicken coop just might spell a formula for success when caring for nursing home patients with Alzheimer’s.
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