Ellen Levinson’s tone becomes nostalgic as she recalls how she felt the day last summer when Terry Golson placed a hen in her lap.
“Having that chicken in my arms and holding it against my body was profoundly soothing,” Levinson said.
But even in that moment, she wasn’t thinking so much about herself as her clientele. Levinson is executive director of Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley , a nursing home in Littleton that offers residential care for elderly patients with memory loss as well as short-term rehabilitation services.
“We deal with agitation a lot on the dementia unit,” Levinson said. “The chicken felt wonderful to hold. Something clicked. If I were agitated or upset, this is what I would want.”
She couldn’t have been in a better place when the idea struck her. She was attending a seminar led by Golson, a Carlisle resident whose acclaim as a poultry-raising authority has landed her on Martha Stewart’s TV show and in the New Yorker magazine.
During the backyard workshop, which Golson offers periodically, Levinson found herself thinking more about how the presence of chickens might affect her patients.
“We spent some time watching the chickens as they pecked in the ground and took dirt baths, and it was fascinating,’’ Levinson said.
“One of the issues present in people with dementia is short attention span. They can’t sit still for even half an hour. But if we had the chickens nearby, I started thinking, our residents would be able to watch them for a short time, move on to something else, then come back and watch them some more. It seemed like a natural fit.”
The notion wasn’t quite as far-fetched as it might seem. With its grass-rich campus amid what was once agricultural land in Littleton, the Life Care Center has already introduced several nonhuman inhabitants into the mix. Permanently installed on the 40-acre property are goats, llamas, an alpaca, and an indoor cat, and dogs come in for daily visits; Levinson wondered how her patients might react to chickens in their midst.
Levinson asked Golson to visit the facility and advise the Life Care staff on the viability of installing a chicken coop on the grounds. Golson loved the idea. After discussing with Levinson what would be required to set up a flock, Colson and the director of the facility's memory support unit, Erica Labb, arranged a series of visits to introduce the residents to the idea.
It was during these interactive sessions that Labb, who describes herself as “not that much of an animal person previously, but now I’m becoming one,” was struck by something she doesn’t typically see during group events in her unit: rapt attention.
Unlike the more common animal-therapy programs in which dogs are trained to visit hospitals and nursing homes, the chickens are not expected to interact in any particular way with patients. And unlike the llamas, goats, and alpaca, which are kept on the Life Care Center’s front lawn, the chickens and their coop are right outside the large picture window in the activity room.
It became clear to Golson in her initial presentations that chickens carried strong associations for some of the residents. Many of them, now in their 80s and 90s, grew up around farms or had other memories associated with farm animals.
“Chickens are innately engaging,” Golson said. “I made it tactile by passing around feathers and eggs. For some of these elderly people, it’s been years since they’ve touched an egg. For those who used to do a lot of cooking or baking, having an egg in their hand can be very evocative. For one woman who grew up in Italy, holding the egg tapped into memories of making homemade pasta.”
One of Golson’s areas of expertise is, for lack of a better term, chicken personality. It was important to her to find the right mix of fowl temperaments to make this experiment work. So she began the way she always does with newcomers: by getting to know them.
“Last winter, I ordered 26 chicks from a mail-order hatchery. Once they arrived in March, I observed their innate personalities and eventually chose the five that seemed the friendliest.”
Not only did Golson want the right social characteristics among the Life Care flock, she also wanted the nursing home residents to be able to distinguish among them visually, so she chose a variety of breeds and colors to make the final cut.
The chickens and their coop showed up at the nursing home late last month.
Labb came up with an inspiration for naming the birds; she chose from among a list of the names of the residents’ mothers and grandmothers. As a result, the tenants of Life Care’s new chicken coop are Clementine, Elsie, Beulah, Mae Belle, and Millie.
“My hope is the residents get to know the chickens individually and develop some interest in their social life,” Labb said. “They’ll develop favorites. Eventually, I hope they will participate in caretaking, feeding, gathering eggs. The goal really comes down to engagement.”
Labb never anticipated adding “chicken captain” to her resume, but a few lessons from Golson taught her what she needed to know about keeping the birds safe and healthy. The maintenance staff bears the brunt of the feeding and cleaning for all the farm animals at Life Care. At this point, having animals on the property is second nature to them. Not so for those farther afield; Levinson received a phone call from a representative of the center’s accounting firm in Tennessee, who wanted to know why the nursing home had just received a bill for a chicken coop.
Littleton resident Richard Carozza , a recent McGill University graduate who is applying to medical schools, has joined the Life Care team for the summer as a volunteer to apply his scientific research skills to the experiment.
“We’ve already discovered that Life Care has a lower usage of antipsychotic drugs than other facilities with dementia patients,” he said. “Could this be related to the presence of animals?”
And by extension, Carozza wonders, can he prove a measurable difference in the patients’ behaviors after they start interacting with the chickens? He will spend much of the summer investigating these questions.
So far, Labb and Levinson both say they are pleased with the residents’ interest in the coop, and eager to foster continuing interaction throughout the summer, including having the residents help gather eggs once the chickens start laying.
Golson would like to see this model extended to other long-term care and memory loss facilities, particularly if the same careful attention to detail is followed.
“Life Care went far beyond just throwing some chickens and a coop out onto the lawn,” the facility’s consultant said. “It’s important that this not be done in a slapdash way. It has to come across as a beautiful, well-cared-for flock, just as this one is.”
And the presence of the animals helps when the residents have visitors as well.
“It’s a way of connecting generations,” Labb said. “Nursing homes can be scary places for young children. People sometimes don’t know how to visit. The animals provide something for everyone to watch together.”
Golson, whose website (www.hencam.com) features live streaming video from her own chicken coop, believes that “watching chickens is both engaging and peaceful at the same time.”
“Having chickens in the backyard is like looking at the ocean. There’s a lot of movement and at the same time it feels calming. What could be better for memory-loss patients than this constant ebb and flow in which they can engage? It’s a perfect match.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@ gmail.com.