Retirement Home For The Birds


Around almost every corner in the Western Home, birds can be heard chirping. Cats are sunning themselves on windowsills. Dogs can be found sprawled on a bed or begging for treats.

It's a domesticated jungle in there.

Four years ago, the Western Home, a retirement, assisted living and nursing facility, instituted a concept called "edenization." By incorporating birds, children, gardens and plant life, those running the home aimed to create a more tranquil, real-life environment, and it has even had health benefits for some in the home.

"The whole idea is normalization. We want to ease the adjustment from moving out of their home," said Judy Staff, the home's director of leisure volunteer services. The animals "get residents out of their rooms and into common areas, isolationism is reduced."

As Casey, a retired racing greyhound, makes her way around the main floor of the Western Home, it's apparent she's a loved dog. Residents yell, "come over here, Casey," some of them motioning from wheelchairs, while others scramble to find a treat to lure the mild-mannered canine their way.

In this case, 87-year-old Louise Trimble was the lucky recipient of a little extra love. With Trimble's eyesight deteriorating, Casey helped herself to a caress by placing her long snout under Louise's outstretched hand.

"Oh yes, you're a sweetheart. What a nice ribbon around your neck," Trimble cooed. "You're so very, very nice. I love you."

The pets seem to bring out the best in people. Staff said animals help residents with their motor skills and fight memory loss. Behavior modification drugs are reduced, if not eliminated, life expectancy is increased and the turnover rate of health care workers at the home has decreased.

Dr. William Thomas, who launched the concept in 1991, believes animals help improve the quality of life for residents of long-term care facilities. In a study of Edenization at the Western Home in 1998, six randomly selected residents taking anxiety medications were profiled. At the end of the study, four of the six were taking far less medication.

"Pets reduce anxiety," said Sharon Lukes, study co-author and director of assisted living. "Before we had residents who were bumps on a log; they would just sit there. When people brought pets and children in, they would go crazy."

Western Home officials are so pleased with the results that they hope to add to their stable of hundreds of birds, two dogs and three cats. The next step is providing plant life and increasing the presence of children.

"The pets are very spoiled. The residents all want to give them cookies, ice cream and even dress them up in scarves and sweaters. I'm surprised their toenails aren't painted yet," she said.