Pioneering project that uses ‘hen power’ to fight loneliness arrives in Yorkshire

It started with £200 and a second-hand hen house in the North-East, but now, a pioneering scheme that brings hens into care homes to tackle social isolation among elderly residents, has come to Yorkshire for the first time.

Resident Eamon McMahon with care assistant Leah O'Leary. Picture Scott Merrylees

The £1m lottery-funded HenPower project has introduced a new meaning to the term ‘hen party’. By encouraging care home residents to take an active interest in the upkeep of hens, it is building relationships between residents, staff, family and even local school children - with the benefits going beyond those of animal therapy.

The project, which has been shown to reduce loneliness and geriatric depression and improve well-being by researchers at Northumbria University, is now running in care homes in Leeds and Castleford.

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Director of project founder Equal Arts, Douglas Hunter, said hens at Nesfield Lodge in Belle Isle and Bywater Hall and Lodge in Allerton Bywater, four weeks ago, are already making an impact.

Resident Eamon McMahon with care assistant Leah O'Leary. Picture Scott Merrylees

Mr Hunter said: “Care homes are very female-orientated, matriarchal places. Most residents are female, most staff are female, so originally we were looking at how we could engage with men. So we started with a £200 pilot, six hens, and a second-hand hen house, and four years later it’s a £1.5m scheme moving out of the North East and into Leeds and London.

“Now we have as many women enjoying it as men, and it’s not just about the practical activity of looking after the hens, mucking out and collecting the eggs, there is a whole creative element, with photography, writing and a whole raft of activities.”

One element to come out of the project is bringing school children into care homes. The life cycle of a chicken is included in the primary curriculum, and bringing the children in to see the birds and hear from residents about how they look after the them, both now and when they were younger, proved to be a “great opportunity” for both the children and residents alike.

More than 700 residents in over 20 North-East and two London homes take part in HenPower projects. The arrival of HenPower in West Yorkshire is the next step for the charity taking it country-wide.

Picture Scott Merrylees

HenPower has won a multitude of awards, including a Prime Minister’s volunteering award for ‘hensioner’ Alan Richards, who took part in one of the original projects and now champions it, even lecturing at Northumbria University about its benefits.

Back at Nesfield Lodge, the hens, which have been selected and named by the residents, are settling in and already making a difference.

Resident Eamon McMahon, 84, said: “The hens are lovely, they’re so beautiful. I spend a lot of time out here with them. I’m up at 7am, which is when they get let out and fed, then we collect their eggs in the afternoon.”

The two Yorkshire homes are both owned by Orchard Care Homes, which worked with Equal Arts on pilot schemes in Darlington. With such positive feedback, the company wanted to roll out the scheme to its other homes. Operations director Phil Whitaker said: “It’s such a simple idea which has such a potential for big impact on the homes taking part.”

Care home assistant Laeh O'Leary and resident Doreen Maude. Picture Scott Merrylees

Study showed impact on loneliness

ACADEMICS at Northumbria University launched a “robust evaluation” of the project and found it had a positive effect at reducing loneliness.

The Yorkshire Post has been campaigning to raise awareness about the issue of loneliness, which can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, since February 2014.

The university’s report said: “Being with the hens and taking part in HenPower activities brought people together and became a focus for conversations and from this some participants identified with others and began to form relationships.”

Equal Arts Rachael Berry and resident Eamon McMahon. Picture Scott Merrylees

Project director Douglas Hunter added: “The study also showed a reduction in depression.”

Resident Iris Stephens with Elliot Jayakumar from Sharp Lane Primary. Picture Scott Merrylees