Hensioners and the power of therapy animals


A few little chooks are making big changes in the lives of elderly patients, helping them fight depression and dementia.

"I don't think anyone had really expected that you could have a hen as a pet," says Karn Nelson, researcher at the Whiddon group.

Running close to 20 aged care facilities in New South Wales, they began looking into alternative means to improve the quality of life for residents in the homes.

They came up with Henpower.

"Henpower is a program that has been built around chook keeping … it's really about combating social isolation and loneliness for older people both in the community and also in residential age care homes," she says.

"Our research shows that levels of social isolation and loneliness among older Australians are at about 40 per cent which compares with about 10 per cent if you ask the general population in Australia.

"From what we've seen Henpower … is very effective around helping deal with depression, symptoms of depression and anxiety particular for our residents with dementia."

Therapy animals have become an effective form of treatment worldwide, with the usual go-to being dogs and cats.

"One of the main physiological benefits of being around animals is that we get an oxytocin hit or an oxytocin rush and that's our feel good or bonding hormone and in turn, that drives down our stress response and our stress physiology," says psychologist Melanie Jones.

"So when you're not stressed, you deal with pain better so those patients who maybe have lower mobility might be more motivated to get out and walk."

Jones has been researching the bond between animals and humans for a decade and says the longterm effects are astounding.

"With animals people are more likely to talk about the animals but also they're more likely to talk to each other in the presence of animals.

"Add to that the fact that hens are outdoor and so you're getting people outside into nature and we also think that's going to have a really beneficial effects."

For the patients, they couldn't agree more.

"I don’t know what we would do if it wasn’t for these little birds," says 92-year-old Verlie Ford.

"I have little Molly here … She keeps me company."


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