Never underestimate the power of poultry.

Just a couple years ago, a patient at Shadon House, a nursing home in Gateshead, England, was very agitated and kept repeating certain names over and over again. No one knew what he was talking about.

"After a few weeks, we realized the names he was saying were those of the hens he had previously kept at home when he was younger," says Jos Forester-Melville of Equal Arts, an English charity that provides creative projects for older people. "We thought about it for a bit and decided to get the care home some hens of their own to see how it would work out."

senior man with chicken on his hatForester-Melville offered her old hen house, and the group bought six hens for the nursing home.

"It was a great success and the service users and staff liked them a lot," says Forester-Melville. "And most importantly, the man became calm, rested and more settled."

Since that experiment in 2012, the arts group has created HenPower and expanded it to a dozen nursing homes in northeast England. They expect to have chickens in a dozen more by the end of the year. Seniors who work with the birds are dubbed "hensioners," a twist on the British term "pensioner," referring to someone who is retired. They take care of the chickens and cook with their eggs, but also take part in creative poultry-related activities including art projects, singing and dancing.

"There are different levels of interest amongst different groups. I have a core group and they are all hands on. They hatch their own, design and build hen houses, sell them at auctions or to other care homes," says Forester-Melville.

"Twice a year we dip the hens to get rid of mites and lice, and on Valentine's Day each year we invented a ‘Love Your Hen’ day. The residents wash the hens and then blow dry them with hairdryers. They are very pampered hens. The residents are very proud of them."

To get involved, seniors don’t have to live in one of HenPower's program locations. Hensioners take the birds for road trips to other nursing homes and to schools so other people can interact with the hens.

"Our hens model for art classes, sitting on a table while people observe their feather patterns to paint. Or they are used as teaching resources for small children to learn about the life cycle of a hen."

Hens help older men connect

senior man holding henOlder men, especially, benefit by interactions with the birds. A study by the University of Northumbria found that male HenPower participants were less lonely and depressed and had an overall increased sense of well-being.

In fact, HenPower was initially funded in hopes of reaching senior males. Women are more likely to socialize while men typically keep to themselves and avoid socially engaging activities.

"We found that by running the project, men were much more likely to get involved because it was quite hands on," says Forester-Melville. "I have men in the group who never spoke before and who now travel all over the country together in the name of HenPower. They are finding a new string to their bow through hen keeping."

The value of animal therapy

Many studies have looked at the value of therapy animals in institutional settings. Although the reports are anecdotal, they show that the creatures can ease agitated behaviors that accompany dementia and help with loneliness. Animal therapy visits may lower blood pressure and promote well-being.

Forester-Melville agrees that the birds are therapeutic, and she takes it a step further.

"We’re quite keen not to promote it as ‘hen therapy’ just because it's so much more than that. It’s sort of all-encompassing and encourages older people to support each other and empower other older people to take up a new interest," she says. "In the U.K. currently, there is a lot being written about the effects of isolation and loneliness amongst the elderly, and HenPower sort of ticks all of the boxes for positively challenging this."

seniors watching chickens in coop through a window

At Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley, the chickens are better than TV. (Photo: Steve Golson)

Chickens are like the sea

A small flock of chickens moved into the Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley in Littleton, Massachusetts, in 2013. The hens joined dogs, llamas and goats as non-human residents of the center, just 30 miles west of Boston.

The center's director brought in resident poultry after taking a seminar by backyard chicken expert Terry Golson.

"Chickens are like having an ocean in your backyard. They're always moving, yet they're calming," says Golson, whose website features streaming video of her own chicken coop. "People with agitation issues have this to calm them."

Golson set up a coop on the property so that residents could look out the window and watch them. In the past, there had been nothing to look at but a grassy lawn.

"Before the chickens, the memory-loss residents usually sat looking inward and now there's the chicken coop out the window," says Golson. "There's always something going on."

In addition, many people at the center are only there for temporary rehabilitation for things such as a broken hip. The chicken coop outside motivates them to get up and go somewhere instead of just moving around inside the building.

The other benefits

hands holding baby chickOccasionally, the employee who takes care of the chickens will bring one inside and let the residents pet it. But, says Golson, that's not the heart of this hen program.

"These are animals that are meant to be viewed outside, but that's part of the appeal. They scratch the dirt and they eat and they cluck. They move around all the time, and it's better than television," says Golson.

"I don’t even see them as therapy animals with the classic thought that you cuddle, you hold, you stroke. These are animals that are meant to be watched and engaged with through conversation about them."

And the benefits go beyond the residents. Family members who might have made very quick visits before now stay longer. With the chickens, they have something interesting to talk about. And administrators notice that since the coop arrived, they have had more visits by children who are interested in the engaging birds.

In addition, says Golson, chickens can tap into some deep-seated memories. People in their 80s or 90s often had some relationship with chickens — maybe raising them as children — and many obviously spend time cooking with eggs in the kitchen.

"Here, they can see them, they can feel them. An elderly woman who might not remember what she had for lunch can tell you how she made homemade pasta with eggs years ago."

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Watch a video about the men of HenPower here:

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Top two photos: Mark Henderson @HenPower for Equal Arts; bottom photo: Steve Golson

Mary Jo DiLonardo Mary Jo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.