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The Squawk about Hen-Keeping in Elderly Care Facilities: An Interview with Douglas Hunter

For many centuries, people living in rural areas and on farms have kept laying hens either as a way to get fresh eggs for their families or as a way to make a profit by selling the eggs.  More recently, hen-keeping has become a trendy urban and suburban hobby, with coops popping up in neighborhoods across the world.  One place that very few people would expect to find a small flock of hens, though, is in a care home setting.   However, Douglas Hunter, Co-Director of the charity Equal Arts, and his colleagues saw an opportunity to utilize hen-keeping as a way to stimulate elderly people who live in care homes and have found great success through their program, HenPower.

Douglas Hunter Co Director of Equal ArtsDouglas Hunter Co Director of Equal ArtsThe Incubation of an Idea

Equal Arts, an England-based charity that uses creative activities to improve the health and well-being of older people, was working in a dementia care setting where they heard about one resident who missed the friendship he shared with his hens.  The facility’s manager asked Equal Arts if they could help run a six-month hen-keeping trial program.  After identifying an individual who had experience working with the elderly, was a drama facilitator, and was knowledgeable about keeping hens, HenPower’s very first trial program was established.  Equal Arts worked closely with this individual in order to train staff, develop sound animal welfare practices, and create the foundation for their hen-keeping program.  

“Within a short period of time it became clearly apparent that many of the residents living with dementia enjoyed the positive distraction offered by the hens,” said Hunter.  “They enjoyed the practical activities and opportunity to be outside with a purpose and enjoyed taking part in creative activities that used hens.”

The hen-keeping and outdoor activities stimulated the residents and positively affected them both mentally and physically.  Residents’ relatives also noticed the impact that HenPower had on their loved ones. They commented on the fact that the hens served as a positive distraction, provided a chance for conversation that remained “in the present,” and helped reduce anxiety and agitation.  The social care staff also benefited from the program, as they enjoyed the opportunity to help residents prepare to go out into the garden, collect eggs, and feed the hens.

The success of the six-month pilot program led to the lengthening of the project to an 18-month period in eight different types of elderly residential care settings.  During this time period, HenPower was evaluated using health and well-being scales in order to determine its efficacy. Eighty participants and five in-depth case studies were considered, and the research concluded that HenPower involvement improved well-being and reduced depression and loneliness.  It also became apparent during the 18-month program that the relationships that were fostered among people in the program were the most beneficial result.  The hens served as the catalyst for the development of strong relationships between the elderly residents and their peers, families, care staff, and community participants such as school children.

HenPower Today

Equal Arts and HenPower have both received a great deal of publicity through media coverage.  This publicity generates interest among care homes, and Equal Arts attempts to coordinate interested and involved care homes into geographic clusters for the purpose of peer and community support.  These clusters are usually rather diverse and may include an independent living facility that is located close to four or five care settings for frail and vulnerable people and even a school or community center that will add a cross generational aspect to the program.People are all smiles when caring for the hensPeople are all smiles when caring for the hens

Care homes often become interested in becoming involved with HenPower when they hear about the success stories of facilities and residents who are already involved with the program.  HenPower also has a group of older people known as the Hensioners who travel to care settings to present “Hen Roadshows” to the residents and generate interest in the program.  The Hen Roadshows are also presented to health and social care professionals through seminars or presentations at conferences and industry events.  HenPower also has a few short films that help them spread their message to large numbers of interested people.

Today, HenPower is thriving not only in England but also around the globe.  They have 20 projects in the North East of England, ten projects nationally, and ten projects internationally.  Each project involves an average of 20 care home residents on a regular basis and another 40 people who are involved on a less regular basis.  There are an average of six to eight hens involved with each program.  However, some of the large programs have more than 20 birds.  The hens for the program are usually acquired from a provider in North West England, but two other providers in Southern England have also been involved in the past.

As Co-Director of Equal Arts, Hunter manages HenPower and works with the Project Lead.

“We have a Project Lead who oversees the day-to-day delivery or program activities which has allowed me to plan the development of the project from a £200 pilot into a £1.5 million national and international program over a six year period,” said Hunter.

Hen-Keeping as a Stimulant

While it is much more common to see animals such as dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, miniature horses, and even reptiles in care home settings, Hunter and his team believe that hens provide a unique experience that is very different from an interaction with other types of animals.

“We think that hens offer an opportunity for shared responsibility where older people needn’t feel the burden of cleaning, feeding, walking, as everyone can do their bit,” said Hunter.

The chickens also provide visual stimulation, as residents enjoy seeing the different colors and behavior of the birds.  Since the hens are housed in the garden areas of the care homes, residents and visitors can go outside to watch the animals or sit inside and watch them through a window.  This new and ever-changing scenery serves as a positive distraction for older people, especially those with dementia.

Elderly residents benefit greatly from interactions with both the chickens and peopleElderly residents benefit greatly from interactions with both the chickens and peopleThe impact that the hens have on the lives of both residents and staff members in care homes is truly remarkable.  For some, the interaction with the birds has even been life changing.  HenPower has been involved with a number of case studies that include comments from elderly people who say that they were lonely, depressed, and bereaved before their involvement with the program.  Since taking part in HenPower, these individuals claim to feel a sense of purpose, pleasure, and friendship.  

“The impact on frail and vulnerable older people is also striking, with care staff and family members commenting that the older person hadn’t spoken, smiled, or indicated much in terms of facial gestures but became animated, talked, and smiled when sitting and petting a hen,” said Hunter.

Additionally, evidence has also shown reduced incidence of violent and aggressive behavior, reduced use of antipsychotics, and reduced staff sickness in dementia care settings that have implemented a HenPower project.  These positive influences lead to an improved facility atmosphere and a direct cost savings for the organizations.

The Future of Creativity in Care Homes

Hunter believes that there is significant potential in reducing the use of medical and pharmacological interventions for the elderly and, instead, focusing more on the use of other creative, well-being approaches that utilize projects such as HenPower.  This type of activity, along with relationship-centered care of the elderly, could be more cost efficient and equally as effective as medical interventions. 

“I hope it won’t be too long before we’re able to work alongside an architect, an interior designer, and a landscape architect to help incorporate creativity into the design and building of care homes which would, of course, include allocating spaces for hen-keeping,” said Hunter.

In 2016, Equal Arts anticipates that their current size of 40 HenPower projects will increase by 40 percent, totaling 56 projects.  They hope for continued growth and sustainability with increased financial contributions from care home providers who recognize the benefits of activities such as HenPower.  These sorts of projects are a cost effective way to better the quality of life for older people and offer care staff a more enjoyable work environment, improving the care home experience for everyone involved.    

For more information about Equal Arts and HenPower, visit their website.  

  1. Care
  2. Chickens
  3. Health care
  4. Hens
  5. Human-animal interactions
  6. Long term care facilties
  7. Older adults
  8. Relationships

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