It’s a sunny, hot afternoon, but a group of elderly women are outside, looking through a fence at an enclosed space in the courtyard of their seniors home.
Inside the pen, a trio of chickens are doing what chickens do — scratching, pecking the ground, and softly vocalizing.
“It’s warm today, they’re kind of exhausted, it’s so hot,” says Ellen Demers, as a black pullet pecks at a handful of oats she’s offering through the wire. “See how they’re drinking that water?”
Demers, who has lived at Castlegar’s Talarico Place for two years, says being able to be around the chickens means a lot to her.
“I came from a farm when I was young, and I just love those things, I just love them,” she says. “They always seem to come to me, and I enjoy that.”
Demers isn’t the only one who loves the chickens. A few yards away, inside the air-conditioned building, other seniors are peering through the windows to catch a glimpse of the birds.
At Talarico Place, the animals have become the centre of attention for the seniors, the gossip at breakfast and the go-to topic between residents passing time.
“To hear the residents talking about them in the dining room in the morning — ‘Where are the chickens? How are the chickens?’ — it’s been amazing,” says Kelly-Anne Gyurkovits, the recreation co-ordinator at the home.
Gyurkovits says she first read about chickens being used as seniors therapy a few years ago, and started to lobby her administrator to let her give it a try.
“At first the staff thought we were out of our minds, saying this wouldn’t work, there’s no way we could do this,” says Gyurkovits. “I kind of put a bug in [my boss’] ear a few years ago, and she thought I was kidding.
“And then she went away on holidays, and when she got back, I said ‘we have this all organized,’ and she said ‘let’s give it a shot.’”
The chicks arrived one year ago, just a couple days old. At first they had a small enclosure, and wandered freely around the courtyard. But, when the chickens started doing what chickens do after eating, it became clear they needed to be in an enclosed space.
This year, with the help of Mitchell’s Supply and Western Industrial Contracting, they built a proper fenced run, and a little coop. Cluckingham Palace is now the heart of Talarico’s community.
“We call it Chicken TV,” says Gyurkovits. “If it’s not hot out here, there’s a lineup to see them and feed them. We have people in the dining room saying ‘can you move that chair for me? I can’t see the chickens.’
“I’ve been working with seniors for 30 years, and this is the best thing I have ever done. By far.”
Gyurkovits’ boss, Stacey Thin, says having the chickens meets with the institution’s greater goal, to create a rich, healthy, loving place for seniors. The path to that goal is creating interactions and building seniors relationships with animals, children and the community.
“I think chickens bring spontaneity, a life-worth-living to residents… they provide something for people to talk about, interact with, reminiscing about their past, caring for them, ” says Thin. “We’re providing care for them, but they need to provide care for other things.
“It’s bringing them back some purpose, some joy in their lives.”
The birds are low-maintenance animals, and eat a lot of table scraps from the kitchen and staff’s homes. Cleaning the tiny coop is not much of a burden either.
Gyurkovits says the chickens help residents connect with each other, with staff, and with their past.
“It’s just a joy. It brings back memories and all those things they did as children, or chores as adults.
“We have a generation of people here who didn’t necessarily have an indoor dog or an indoor cat, they had farm animals,” she says. “That’s what they are used to, that’s their thing. This is something they can identify with.”
As far as Gyurkovits and Thin know, they are the only seniors facility in the province providing Chicken TV.
But she doesn’t think they’ll be the last.
It’s been long enough in the sun, for both chickens and humans, so Ellen Demers and friends retreat to the cool interior of the home. But she’ll be back as soon as she can, she says, with some treats for them. She likes to share her ice cream with the birds — a chicken favourite, apparently.
“They’re not spoiled,” she says. “They’re loved.”