Chickens help the elderly with loneliness

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Chickens helping the elderly tackle loneliness

A scheme to introduce hen keeping to the elderly is turning out to have a miraculous effect on their wellbeing by reducing isolation and depression

Owen Turnbull is giving a tiny five-day-old chick a bath in the sink of a communal launderette. The chick, which is chirping away as he talks to it, is one of four orphans. ‘Their mam died three days ago,’ he says, in his soft Geordie accent. ‘I found her when I went to feed them. I was sad about losing her – I do get attached to them.’

For the past nine years Turnbull, 84, has lived in Wood Green, sheltered-accommodation bungalows in Gateshead, near Newcastle, with his 82-year-old wife, Bell (for whom he is the main career), along with 70 other residents, 13 hens and 15 chicks. Every morning he gets up at 6.30 to clean out the four coops directly outside his bungalow, change the hens’ water and feed them. Every night except Tuesday (when he has a night off) he puts them to roost at dusk.

The chickens, which range from Derbyshire redcaps to pretty grey bluebells (16 breeds in total), are all named after women who live at Wood Green (Turnbull, who has kept chickens for 50 years, named ‘the most beautiful one’, a silver-laced wyandotte, after his wife). The eggs are sold (£1.25 for six) in the central common room, where alongside activities based around the hens at various times of the week, and endless strong tea for residents and volunteers, there is an incubator for hatching chicks.

The chickens are part of a scheme to help older men tackle loneliness and isolation. The idea came about in early 2012, when a man at a dementia care center nearby kept telling staff he missed his ‘girls’. The manager didn’t know whom he meant – his wife, his daughters? ‘Then she realized he meant his hens,’ says Douglas Hunter, the director of Equal Arts, a charity providing creative projects for older people, which was working in the center at the time.

The manager asked Hunter if she could bring some hens into the home. Equal Arts contacted Defra and the Environment Agency and found no reason not to. So, with ‘a couple of hundred quid’, Equal Arts bought six hens and a secondhand hen house. ‘Our main reservation was whether the staff would be annoyed by them, and wouldn’t have time to look after them,’ Hunter says. But the care workers loved the hens so much that despite being on minimum wage they each paid £10 to buy a new run.

Buoyed by its success, Equal Arts won £164,000 of lottery money in August 2012 to set up the project, HenPower, in eight pilot sites, ranging from care homes to assisted-living schemes such as Wood Green. As well as practical poultry keeping, there are hen-based activities, including art, dance and singing. (‘You’d be surprised how many chicken-related songs there are, especially 1930s jazz,’ Hunter says.) It was aimed at men (although it is also open to women), who are vulnerable to depression in care homes. ‘Men tend not to have such broad social networks as women,’ Hunter says. ‘And they tend to have very different hobbies. Hen keeping appeals to certain groups of men.’

Thomas ‘Ossie’ Cresswell, a large man who moves slowly on his walking sticks, admits he was initially skeptical about the project. Having kept hens before, he agreed to get involved, but didn’t like the idea of keeping them as pets. (While some of the men told me that they have their favorite chickens, Cresswell insists he doesn’t. ‘Hens is hens, love,’ he tells me.) But now he is one of their most vocal supporters. ‘My life has been a lot fuller since we’ve had these hens,’ he says. ‘I think I’d be lost without them.’

A core group out of the 23 involved in HenPower at Wood Green have really embraced the project. Last year they bought an incubator and went to auction to buy fertilized eggs. ‘We were all in the lounge, the incubator was on the bar and they were all hugging each other as the eggs hatched – it was genuinely emotional,’ Jos Forester-Melville, the HenPower project leader, says. ‘Everyone had tears in their eyes. Owen was in there with his video camera like it was his grandchildren at a school play.’

An important part of HenPower is interacting in the community, so they take the chickens on ‘roadshows’ to schools and ‘old people’s homes’, as 87-year-old Cresswell puts it. ‘You go in and they’re all looking at the wall. Some of them are younger than me,’ he says darkly. ‘We go in with three hens and start chatting and you’d think a bomb had dropped, the place comes alive. It makes a big difference.’

The project has made a big difference to his life, too. Twice widowed, Cresswell has lived in his bungalow at Wood Green for 16 years. ‘Me and the wife used to go everywhere together, but when she died 10 years ago she left me on my own,’ he says. Despite his bungalow being only 20 yards from the communal lounge, he says before the project he would ‘keep myself to myself. I was very lonely.’ Since joining HenPower he has ‘made a lot of friends’ and says, ‘It gives you a purpose for life.’

HenPower is not only for those who live on site. Tommy Appleby lives three miles away and had never kept hens. He says that the project ‘saved his life’. He had cared for his wife, Avian, for 20 years. He says, ‘I didn’t meet anyone because I was busy looking after her, but I didn’t mind because she was my little girl.’ When she died five and a half years ago, he says, ‘I was completely at a loss; I was stranded.’ He met a man involved in HenPower at the cemetery. ‘Taking part was difficult at first. Now I love the other fellows – they really know hens.’

It is evidently life-enhancing. The Campaign to End Loneliness estimates isolation increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 50 per cent. For Appleby HenPower has been a gateway into other Equal Arts projects. He does ukulele, art and dancing, although he says, ‘I struggle to hear the instructions because I’ve got very bad hearing. But I have a good laugh.’

A study by the University of Northumbria last September found that the male participants of HenPower all reported improved wellbeing, and reduced depression and loneliness. In one dementia care home it found that since the hens had arrived violent incidents by residents were down by 50 per cent, and the use of antipsychotic drugs was so reduced that they were no longer issued routinely.

In May this year HenPower was awarded almost £1 million from the Big Lottery Fund (along with £34,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund in January 2013) to continue its work and extend to another five areas. As well as more sites in the North East, Equal Arts is in talks with care homes in Poole, Shropshire and London; last month Cresswell, along with his friend Alan Richards, travelled to Hoxton, east London, to talk about their experiences, and Appleby has spoken at conferences in Manchester and Birmingham. There is also interest from abroad – a care home in Frankfurt wants to replicate the scheme, and a party from Bangladesh has visited.

As I’m about to leave, a little blue car whizzes down the drive. It is Cresswell and Richards speeding off for a school visit with a couple of hens. ‘They’ve all got so much energy it’s unbelievable,’ Forester-Melville says. ‘They’ve made this a complete success and I’m dead proud of them.’