pHOTOGRAPH BY JANE HILTON/RDIEIt’s a Wednesday morning and the communal lounge at the Wood Green sheltered housing project in Gateshead in northeast England is a hive of activity. A group of male residents are playing pool. Meanwhile the women chat, place pieces in a giant jigsaw that covers an entire table, or tuck into scones, covered with strawberries and cream that have been freshly baked by Lynne Walker, who looks after Wood Green’s 65 bungalows and their elderly inhabitants.
The reason why so many people have gathered together can be found in a plastic incubator in one corner of the room. For Wood Green is the home of HenPower, a project that has revealed the incredible effect that something as simple as keeping chickens can have on the lives of elderly people. And nothing raises their spirits quite like new birds being born.
“Have you seen the chicks?” asks Doreen Railton, 89. “There are five now.”
“They’re like babies, aren’t they, trying to come out,” says her friend Pat Cain, 78. Sure enough, there in the incubator are five fluffy little birds, making their way into the world.
“They started pecking yesterday,” says Owen Turnbull, an 85-year-old retired engineer. “Lynne was up through the night, checking the incubator. She was here at five this morning because the humidity [in the incubator] was going down. I was in at five past seven to see that everything was all right.”
Owen looks after the chickens at Wood Green—there are roughly 40 today, but there have been almost 60 at times—ably assisted by his pal Albert Hibbert. “I’m Owen’s apprentice,” Albert says, with a smile. “He lets the chickens out every morning and I feed them and get the water. Owen’s a good boss, mind, because he picks up all their droppings!”
As we speak, Owen is setting up a DVD on the lounge’s TV. “We had to give our chickens a dip, as a treatment for lice and mites,” he says, explaining what I’m about to see. “Well, it was a cold day so all the ladies came out with their hairdryers to dry the birds’ feathers.”
Sure enough, the screen is soon filled with Wood Green ladies sitting at tables around the lounge, each drying a damp bird, like stylists and their customers at a fashionable hair salon. The chickens seem to be loving the attention.
“I think they liked the warmth,” says Doreen. “Every now and then they’d lift their wings to let you know they wanted some hot air there.”
The residents of Wood Green have the poise of polished performers, which is no surprise.
The HenPower project has been so successful that Owen, Doreen, Pat and their friends are the stars of a touring roadshow that visits residents in care homes for the elderly. “Last week we were at a home and a lady said, “But I like roast chicken!”’ Pat recalls. “There was a deathly hush. Then we said, ‘We don’t eat our hens. They’re our friends!’”
“She went on and on, asking, ‘But what do they taste like?’ You couldn’t shut her up!” laughs Doreen.
“I know,” says Pat. “You should have seen Owen’s face!”
pHOTOGRAPH BY JANE HILTON/RDIEAs word about HenPower has spread, the men, women and poultry of Wood Green have made appearances on radio, TV and at cultural festivals, lectured to delegates at university conferences and talked to student nurses about the needs and experiences of older patients.
They often take their chickens to local schools. “It’s lovely when you see the bairns’ [children’s] faces,” says Owen, fondly.
The pupils hold the hens, draw pictures of them and ask streams of questions. “I’ve only been stumped by one question,” says Alan Richards, a former taxi-driver, who is one of the stalwarts of HenPower. “A kid asked: ‘How many feathers does a chicken have?’ He’d got me there.“
“Thanks to the hens I’ve made friends with people from four to 94,” says Alan, who in March 2015, received a “Points of Light” award, given by the British government to volunteers who make a difference in the community.
Now, thanks to a £1m grant from the UK Big Lottery Fund, HenPower is being rolled out into sheltered accommodation and care homes across England and pilot schemes are starting in Australia, too.
According to Douglas Hunter, a director of Equal Arts, the charity that pioneered HenPower, academics at Frankfurt Univeristy are keen to test a similar project in Germany.
Yet it all began, in the spring of 2012 because an elderly resident with dementia in a Tyneside care home, Shadon House, kept repeating a list of women’s names and saying how much he missed them.
It took a while for staff to work out that the names did not belong to actual women, but to the hens he used to keep. They wondered whether it would be possible to keep a few chickens at Shadon House.
As it happened, the home was one at which Equal Arts was working. Founded 30 years ago to bring music, painting and other artforms into the lives of elderly people, the charity suddenly found itself setting up a chicken run.
“It seemed like a slightly bonkers idea but we thought we’d give it a go,” recalls Equal Arts’ director Douglas Hunter. “We thought we’d try a six-month pilot project, but the effect was immediate. The staff enjoyed having the chickens; the residents enjoyed it, and their families and visitors benefitted too.”
By September 2012, Equal Arts had received funding to expand the program into eight care homes in Gateshead. Meanwhile, at Wood Green Lynne Walker was facing a problem common to many institutions catering to the elderly. Whereas the female residents were, by and large, able to make friends with one another, the men were often more isolated.
Alan Richards, for example, had been cut off from his ex-wife and children for more than 30 years, following a family dispute. “A lot of the time I was just sitting in my house, watching the telly,” he recalls.
Life was bleak, too, for Ossie Cresswell, 89, a retired foreman welder. “My wife died 17 years ago and since then I’ve been on my own. I just had the TV for company. On a good day, I’d get out into the garden, but that was it. There was nothing left in my life.”
Then Lynne attended a conference about the benefits the chickens had brought at Shadon House. Residents there had not been well enough to look after the chickens themselves, but Lynne saw that the men at Wood Green could manage that job — it would give them something to do. So she asked Equal Arts to help her set up a second scheme.
Some of the residents were skeptical. “I was dead against it,” Alan Richards recalls. “I said it was a ridiculous idea. During the War our neighbors kept chickens. They were all Rhode Island Reds, so I thought that was the way all hens were. Then I saw an article in a magazine and discovered that there were 400 different types of hens. I thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind getting involved in this.’”
pHOTOGRAPH BY JANE HILTON/RDIEOssie, meanwhile, needed less persuading. “I went down [to look at the chickens] on the first afternoon and thought it was interesting. There were other people there that I’d seen, but I’d never spoken to them. We started meeting every week and seeing each other and then it became something to look forward to.”
Men like Alan and Ossie who had barely spoken to one another for years suddenly became firm friends. Then the women of Wood Green joined in as well. They started getting invitations to speak at local schools and old folks’ homes and gradually they developed their roadshow.
“When we visit people with dementia, the people who look after them are so grateful you’ve bothered to be bothered about them,” Ossie says. “We take the hens there, let them out and let people stroke them. Often they start talking when otherwise they’d just be looking at the walls.”
The chickens have become characters in their own right. “Can you get anything bonnier than that?” says Owen, pointing to the special run where the smaller bantams are kept. “Bantams are lovely little birds — nosey little things, mind.” He nods at one of the birds. “That light one’s a cheeky one!” Then he adds, “I married a bantam. My wife’s only five feet tall.”
Owen has been married to his wife, Belle, for 60 years. Like many of Wood Green’s ladies, Belle has a chicken named after her. “She’s a silver lace Ancona,” Owen says. “She loves the attention when she goes on the hen roadshows. But she’s lazy and getting too fat and too heavy.” He pauses and smiles: “That’s the hen, I mean, not my wife!”
Everyone involved with HenPower has a tale to tell. Some are lighthearted, such as the time they all went to a chicken auction and one of the ladies became so over-excited, and put her hand in the air so often, she ended up bidding against herself.
Then there was the mayor of local town Gateshead who insisted on having his picture taken holding a hen, but turned down the offer of a towel to place between the bird and his smart suit… which turned out to be rather less smart once the hen was removed and the mess she had left was revealed.
Others stories are very moving, such as the time they visited an elderly stroke victim who had all but lost the power of speech.
“We gave him a hen and he started stroking and stroking her—he was really smiling,” says Jos Forrester-Melville, the Equal Arts staffer who leads the HenPower project. “After half an hour I went to take the hen away but he wouldn’t let go. Then, with the broadest smile on his face he went, “I LIKE!”
“His daughter burst into tears. Her father hadn’t spoken in months. The next day she called me to say that her father had died. She said, ‘That was the last time I ever saw him. For months he’d hated his life, but then he was really happy.’”
Time and again the pensioners say how the hens have given them a new lease of life. But it’s Ossie Cresswell who sums it up best. After he’s described his role in the HenPower roadshows he says, “The best thing is it keeps me from getting down. If you’re on your own you’ve got virtually nothing. But if I’ve given people happiness then my life has been worthwhile.”