Menagerie therapy

Animals are a source of affection and purpose.

Can they help in uplifting spirits in aged care facilities and nursing homes?

The Telegraph provided an excerpt from Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal, which focuses on medicine and what matters in the end. Atul Hawande spoke to many reformers looking for a different way of dealing with treatments and nursing homes, and one of his chapter’s centres around an eccentric New York doctor and his uplifting idea to bring life into a nursing home.

The Chase Memorial Nursing Home in New Berlin, New York, got more than it could possibly bargain for in 1991, when a young physician named Bill Thomas took a role as the home’s medical director.

The nursing home housed eighty severely disabled elderly residents who had a physical disability, Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of cognitive impairment.

Dr. Thomas found that the Chase Memorial Nursing Home contained what he coined as the “Three Plagues of Existence: boredom, loneliness and helplessness”, so Dr Thomas decided to bring life back into the home by introducing life – plants and greenery in every room, vegetables and flower gardens springing forth from the front lawn, animals and children to brighten up the residents.

But in a New York nursing home animals were subject to complicated regulations.

Acting on instinct and determination, Dr. Thomas convinced his management team that they would apply for a grant and bring in two dogs, four cats and a hundred birds to fill the nursing home with song. He then went to the state capital, lobbied the officials and won the grant and all waivers to make the menagerie happen. Dr. Thomas decided to bring the all animals into their new home in one “big bang” and brought in a greyhound named Target, a lapdog named Ginger, the cats, 100 parakeets and live plants. Staff members brought in their children, and eventually they also incorporated hens and a herd of rabbits into the home.

As one can expect, it was not all smooth sailing.

Dr. Thomas was quoted saying, “It was total pandemonium! They laughed their butts off. We didn’t know what the heck we were doing.”

Residents all started to pitch and help out with the animals and the children, creating a balance of responsibilities, and one of the resident practitioners referred to it as “a heightened environment”.

The results were rewarding. People who had believed they weren’t able to speak started speaking. “People who had been completely withdrawn and non- ambulatory started coming to the nurse’s station and saying, “Ill take the dog for a walk.” Dr. Thomas recalls. “All the parakeets were adopted and renamed by the residents and the lights turned back on in the people’s eyes.”

Researchers have spent time studying the effects of the program and compared the residents at the Chase Nursing Home to those living in a home nearby. The study found that the number of prescription medications required for the residents to take fell to half of the outside aged car facility.

Dr. Thomas considers the reasoning behind the success is due to the fact that it can be “traced to the fundamental human need for a reason to live.  In place of boredom, the residents were offered spontaneity. In place of loneliness, the offer companionship. In place of helplessness, they offer a chance to take care of another being.”


Read the full story on The Telegraph
Can life in a nursing home be made uplifting and purposeful?
Atul Gawande, 2014