An innovative chicken therapy program being used at a Massachusetts life care facility is offering new hope to patients with Alzheimer’s.
The current estimate of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease is 5.2 million. That number is expected to double by 2025. In 2013 alone, the cost of Alzheimer’s disease for the U.S. is predicted to be $203 million. It is a sad fact, too, that more and more Alzheimer’s patients are finding themselves in long term care facilities when loved ones can no longer provide adequate care at home.
The need to help Alzheimer’s sufferers, then, is pressing. Thankfully, new therapies are on their way.
For example, the Life Care Center of Nashoba County in Littleton, Massachusetts (LCC), recently started a unique form of therapy for residents with dementia: chicken therapy.
Ellen Levenson, Executive Director of the facility, already incorporates animals into the daily lives of residents. On the 40 acre former agricultural property, LCC houses several pygmy goats, two llamas, one alpaca and an indoor cat. Therapy dogs visit regularly, as well.
When Levenson attended a backyard seminar on keeping chickens given by local expert Terry Golson, she thought of her residents and what holding a chicken would do for them. Many octogenarians grew up on or near farms, and watching a chicken taking a dust bath can call up some powerful memories.
Levenson calls Golson a chicken guru and hired her to consult on setting up a chicken coop at LCC. Chicken guru is no absent-minded compliment, either. Golson was written up in the New Yorker magazine and has appeared on Martha Stewart’s television show. She also provides a live streaming video from her own chicken coop and offers seminars to those interested in starting a chicken clutch of their own.
As a consultant to LCC, Golson went about the task seriously.
First she ordered 26 chicks from a mail order hatchery. She wanted different breeds of chickens (there are more than 100) so the residents could easily tell the birds apart. She took the time to get to know the chickens and their unique personalities before choosing five who would go to live at LCC.
Golson and Erica Labb, LCC’s director of the memory support unit, set up sessions to introduce the chickens to residents. The results were astounding. “Chickens are innately engaging,” said Golson. “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.
Labb also devised a great idea for naming the chickens. Labb chose from a list of names of the residents’ own mothers and grandmothers. The flock includes Clementine, Elsie, Beulah, Mae Belle and Millie.
The goats, llamas and alpaca live in the front yard. But the chicken coop is set outside the large windows of the activity room. Here residents can watch the chickens in their natural habitat.
“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.”
McGill University graduate Richard Carozza, who is currently applying to medical schools, is volunteering at LCC for the summer and is researching the new experiment.
He has already found a lower use of antipsychotic drugs at LCC compared to other facilities and hypothesizes it is because of interaction with the animals. Carozza expects to find measurable behavioral differences resulting from the chickens’ effect on residents.
The project began in May and Levenson told me there have not been any measurable findings yet. The program is too new to see any tangible results, but she said she expects they will.