Chickens ride a growing movement of animal therapy in care homes. These gentle, low-maintenance birds bring back memories of farms and simpler times.
Kristina Reser-Jaynes watched a Facebook video with fascination. Within Australia, animal therapy in care homes had reduced medication taken by dementia patients by as much as 50 percent. She realized therapy chickens could also help her own mother.
The concept wasn’t new. A study, published by UCLA, lists health benefits of animal-assisted interventions. It details how animals were used as a treatment for handicapped people in ninth-century Belgium. Mentally ill patients learned self-control by holding rabbits and chickens in late 18th-century York, England. Farm animals have helped treat epilepsy in Germany and provided a restful setting for convalescent care in 1942 New York. “Animal-assisted interventions,” the scientific term for animal therapy in care homes, can be as simple as fish tanks in doctors’ offices to alleviate pre-checkup stress or as structured as horseback riding to help troubled teens.
Internet searches of “therapy chickens” or “animal therapy in care homes” attest to how flocks help with depression, hypertension, and even PTSD or autism. Agitation is a frequent problem in care centers and holding chickens is soothing. Dementia patients sit still and focus. Care center staff are soon delighted to see their patients sit in rapt attention, watching “chicken TV” outside a picture window. Elderly residents, who grew up during times when farms were more prevalent, carry joyful memories that the birds evoke. The care centers soon emulate the results that Kristina saw in that Australian video: lower usage of antipsychotic drugs.
Bethel Home, in Viroqua, Wisconsin, provides skilled care, memory care, and rehab for elderly residents like Kristina’s mom. They have a sunny courtyard; the perfect chicken coop location.
Kristina approached the board of directors about her idea of using hens as animal therapy in care homes. She expected to be rejected on every level. When the board said yes, she approached the city. They approved it. So she next consulted the local chief of police. Apparently, there was an ordinance that specifically allowed chickens for educational purposes. The chief said a local preschool had chickens, so why would it be any different for animal therapy in care homes?
Kristina had to follow a few rules. No roosters, for instance, and the chickens had to be vaccinated. Someone had to care for them. Since she visits Bethel Home daily to help feed her mother, she happily volunteered for the job.
When choosing animal therapy in care homes, it’s important to focus on the right natural temperaments. Flighty or aggressive birds are not okay. Luckily, Kristina had her own chickens and had grown up with them, so she already knew about temperaments and tendencies.
She started a GoFundMe account, which raised $1,000 in two days from family, friends, and total strangers. Fundraising paid for a nostalgic red coop with a wheelchair-accessible nesting box and a picket fence for the hens’ yard, and volunteers set everything up. Community members came out to bless the coop. The Chamber of Commerce donated a Flock Block for hens to peck at beside the sitting room window. They even have a chicken swing, though Kristina’s daughter Katherine uses it more than the hens do.
Five chicks came to the home and grew up within view of the residents. They are some of the friendliest chicken breeds: two Ameraucanas, a Buff Orpington, a Silver-laced Wyandotte, and a Barred Rock. They turned one year old in June.
During the cold Wisconsin winter, the hens “went south.” Ten miles south, that is, to Kristina’s own sheltered coop. “They got along fine with their country cousins,” says Kristina. When the weather warmed enough that water no longer froze, the hens returned to Bethel Home. Kristina owns a rooster and she hoped a hen would hatch babies, but so far nobody has sat on eggs.
Bethel Home Helping Hens’ Facebook page is full of updates, and Kristina invites friends and fans to check in for pictures and stories. Visitors will notice two happy kids playing with the chickens. They are Katherine, Kristina’s daughter, and her friend Cash. When Katherine and Cash aren’t playing on the chicken swing, they bring hens around to residents’ bedroom windows. They scoop up recently laid eggs and set them into residents’ hands. Though, in the excitement, many eggs fall and crack. When groups journey outside, Kristina holds the hens so residents can see and pet them.
Animal therapy in care homes is a simple solution. Many residents are elderly and frail, Kristina explains, but they can hold eggs and come down to look at chickens.
The hens’ coop faces the physical therapy room. In front of the sitting room window, a ramp leads to a platform where chickens peck at a xylophone. Residents throw scratch from the feed bucket.
Kristina says nursing homes often become isolated communities. Anything that brings people in is exciting for residents. And because many of the residents grew up on or around farms, chickens bring back fond memories. It’s a low-cost and high-impact way to allow everyone to have more fun.
Her own mom has Alzheimer’s disease and can no longer speak. But she had chickens when Kristina was growing up. “She’s always enjoyed birds,” says Kristina. “She always fed the birds. It’s definitely because of her that this all came about.”
The GoFundMe account recently funded a chicken stroller, so hens could come inside the home. Kristina tried chicken diapers, but the hens didn’t care for them. Residents who cannot make it outside can see the birds within the stroller enclosure.
And what about those eggs? Unfortunately, the residents can’t eat them because of health regulations. So, the eggs go home to feed Kristina’s family, neighbors, and friends. But back at Bethel Home, residents joke around whenever chicken soup is served. Kristina had better go count the hens, they say.
For residents who can no longer communicate, like Kristina’s mom, it’s valuable to have a fun destination outside. And for those who can, the discussion doesn’t stop.
“Everybody is always talking about what the chickens are doing and if there are eggs outside.”
The Facebook page regularly accumulates likes and visitors. Other volunteers or staff have contacted Kristina, hoping to emulate a program of animal therapy in care homes. And as for Kristina’s own project, she says that GoFundMe account has enough donations left to feed the hens for several more years.
Kristina invites all readers to check out Bethel Home Helping Hens’ Facebook page. If you want to start local animal therapy in care homes, see how Bethel Home does it. Send a message. Follow along on the adventures!
Have you worked with animal therapy in care homes? Tell us about your experiences.