The New Therapy Animal in the Fight Against Loneliness

Mammals are not the only animals that make us feel good.

Posted Jun 11, 2018

Ildar Sagdejev
Source: Ildar Sagdejev

When you visit a nursing home in the United Kingdom, the therapy animal you are most likely to see residents interact with is not a dog or a cat. It also isn’t a horse or a rabbit. It’s a chicken, a coop-full of them. An organization called HenPower has been facilitating the spread of chicken coops to nursing and old-age homes all over the country with one goal in mind—improving the cognitive and mental health of older citizens. They call their chicken-loving older citizens—hensioners (the British love puns).

The hensioners are tasked with taking care of the chickens; feeding them and collecting their eggs. Residents are encouraged to observe the chickens from indoors or interact with them outside throughout the day. In addition, the chickens are brought indoors every day for cuddle sessions with the residents (one can only hope chickens don’t mind being cuddled, but given the fate most chickens meet in fast-food industry facilities, a bit of a cuddle with a senior seems pretty tame).

The positive impact the chickens have had on the elderly residents has been far from paltry. Residents exhibited improvements in general health and well-being as well as reductions in loneliness, depression, anxiety and agitation.

Further, caring for the chickens makes the residents feel needed, vital, and it gives them a sense of purpose. Working together as a chicken care-taking group also enhances social ties and social interaction among residents (which is also why the initiative has been effective in combating feelings of loneliness). Lastly, the staff reportedly loves the initiative just as much as the residents do. First, having happier and healthier residents would obviously make life better for staff as well and second, apparently, they get to keep the eggs.

The initial idea was hatched in Massachusetts in 2013, by the Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley, which initially considered chickens a calming aid for patients with dementia. The initiative then moved to England and from there it has taken flight. Chickens are currently invading nursing homes in Australia, where the results are just as successful.

A significant advantage for this new form of senior-residence-therapy is its cost. A facility can sustain this kind of program for…well, chicken feed—literally. And senior residents might just be the beginning. Chickens are also being used for therapy with people with autism. Indeed, various outlets in the United States are now offering courses in ‘Therapy Chicken Training’ (to be clear, the training is for counselors and staff, not the residents…or the chickens).

Most of us associate the proliferation of therapy animals to news stories about their use as support animals on flights. And while there certainly needs to be some tightening of the rules as to what animals should and should not be worthy of traveling alongside their owners, the value and importance of most therapy animals should not be disputed, especially when it comes to the fight against loneliness.

Our relationships with animals are often far more profound than we acknowledge, at least on a societal level (read, Why We Should Take Pet Loss Seriously). Perhaps it’s time we recognized that all animals deserve respect and protection—whether they serve as therapy pets or not.

Copyright 2018 Guy Winch