Last Fall we welcomed two new family members into our community at Crestwood Treatment Center in Fremont. These individuals became instant local celebrities with their inquisitive demeanors, gentle dispositions, and feathered feet. Our new family members are two hens that have provided our residents and staff with the opportunity to deliver nurturing care, revisit childhood memories, and stimulate cognition, as well as being a source of therapeutic amusement.
Our residents consist of men and women who have had brain injuries, as well as a combination of psychiatric and dementia-related behaviors. Many have resided here for many years, supported by the structure, consistency and kindness of our environment. Our staff’s primary goal in developing the Hen Program was to promote a sense of well-being and self-worth for our residents, that by caring for an animal, offers an opportunity for companionship and a calming and emotionally regulating experience. By promoting participation in our Hen Program, we hoped to educate our residents and minimize a sense of boredom and isolation.
Our Hen Program officially started months before the arrival of the hens themselves as a truly interdisciplinary collaboration between our Administrator, Lilian Fong, our Rehab Staff/Occupational Therapists, Maintenance staff, and Program staff. A large enclosure was constructed in our Zen Garden, with a smaller henhouse inside; both are able to be locked to protect the hens. Food, wood shavings, and hay, along with storage containers, were purchased from a local feed store.
When our hens arrived, residents submitted ideas for names, which were then voted on by everyone and the winning names were Buddy and Gismo. Residents then got to know each hen’s distinct personality traits, favorite foods, and daily routines. Residents are an integral part of each hen’s care and wellbeing.
“We make sure the chickens know they’re loved, safe, and welcome here,” said Patti, one of the residents. The chicken coop has now become a favorite destination for socializing, restorative ambulation programs, 1:1 meetings, gardening groups, and the official Chicken Welfare Committee. Another resident, Gloria, observed, “Buddy and Gismo have potential. They help us feel good when we go outside by playing together and taking care of each other.”
Our Chicken Welfare Committee (CWC) consists of a group of 6-10 residents who meet weekly to discuss and make decisions about Buddy’s and Gismo’s health, as well as to ask questions and research answers to better understand these animals’ behavior and preferences. Each meeting begins with an egg count, overview of each hen’s health, and any significant changes in their routines/behaviors during the past week. The group then delves into activities such as cage beautification projects, scientific articles about the anatomy/cognition/evolution of chickens, or group discussion and personal anecdotes about chickens. The CWC has also led to improving our hens’ wellbeing by adding a dust bath to their enclosure, discovering a favorite treat (freeze-dried mealworms), and providing companionship.
Perhaps the most notable accomplishment of the CWC was the celebration of Gismo’s and Buddy’s 1st birthday party in February. The residents spent time making a celebratory banner and birdseed birthday cakes, then converged in the Zen Garden to prepare a fruit salad and enjoy the party. This experience was immensely meaningful for the residents, who continue to talk about it.
Residents are not the only ones who benefit from our chickens. Our staff, many of whom grew up in rural areas, have expressed delight, concern, and nostalgia regarding our hens. Staff is invited to take home the eggs and often compete playfully to get to the eggs first. One CNA reported that she made a quiche with our eggs and brought it to share with her co-workers. Rehab staff often elect to have their meetings outside in the garden to enjoy the calming effects of nature on their overall wellness. The hens have provided a warm and fun meeting place for residents and staff to relate to each other and share experiences. Cortney, another resident, remarked, “The chickens are role models for us; they teach us about companionship and how to interact with each other.”
Buddy’s and Gismo’s presence here at Crestwood Treatment Center has benefitted our entire community immeasurably. The hens are thriving under the dedication and care provided by our residents and staff, and the humans are thriving through the provision of that care. Our Hen Program embodies our Crestwood values and will continue to do so in the years ahead.
Occupational Therapist Crestwood Treatment Center, Fremont