There’s something happening at Hawthorn Court in the Ahwatukee Memory Care Community: 13 newborn chickens have come to live in the courtyard of the property in a circular, shaded 17-foot-diameter pen with a chicken coop.
A trio of Pekin ducks named Donald, Daphne and Betty White also joined the flock.
But it was not a far-fetched idea.
Executive Director Kim Zamora
envisioned it as a way to involve residents in more than just playing bingo and doing crafts.
They help feed and water the birds and when the hens lay eggs they collect them from the coop to donate to a local shelter.
“I’ve been to so many communities where residents are confined indoors, and I had to do something to encourage them to come out to enjoy the good weather, the sun, the fresh air,” Zamora said.
“It’s the concept of taking residents outside, participating in pet therapy, then collecting the eggs and giving back to the community. So it’s a great loop activity for us.
The chickens have become such an attraction that staff have to take turns taking the quarantine residents to watch over them.
“All the residents want to do is go out and see the chicks,” Zamora said. “When you say ‘chickens’, everyone is outside. It really changed the atmosphere of the community.
The combination of ISA Brown chickens and Australorp chickens arrived at Hawthorn Court in Ahwatukee on March 4 when they were 2 days old. Zamora got them from Tractor Supply and was told that up to 30% might not survive, but she only lost one. They all have to be hens, by Phoenix city code; if some end up being roosters, they will be relocated.
Zamora obtained permission from Frontier Management, which has 130 facilities in 19 states, to build the cooperative. Peter Goetz, sales and marketing manager for Hawthorn Court in Ahwatukee, said: “If it works well, maybe it can be rolled out to other communities.”
The center held an open house to celebrate the co-op on April 28, but Zamora said anyone could visit during regular office hours. “I think we’re all proud of what we’ve done,” she said. “We would like to show it to the larger Ahwatukee community.”
They also recently started accepting volunteers again after a hiatus due to the pandemic and already have two high school students volunteering to clean the chicken coop and pass the chickens to residents.
Funding for the chicken coop came from a “generous donation,” as Zamora said, from the family of former resident David Neal.
After giving staff bonuses, she asked the family if they could build the co-op in Neal’s memory and “they thought it was a wonderful idea,” she remarked. “I wanted to do something in his memory that wouldn’t be short lived. And this cooperative will be with us for a long time.
Hawthorn Court at the Ahwatukee Chicken Coop recalls an article on the Reasons to Be Cheerful website titled “In Holland People with Dementia Can Work on a Farm.”
Today, there are 1,350 “care farms” in the Netherlands, including around 400 for people with dementia. He discusses the benefits of involving people in day-to-day decisions and giving them a way to participate in society.
The chicken coop helps residents feel valued because they’re participating in something with a purpose, Goetz explained. “We all need a goal,” he said. “It’s a way for residents to have that goal.”
Zamora and Goetz mentioned that many residents cared for chickens in their youth and that triggers fond memories.
“I often hear, ‘We had chickens when we were growing up,'” said Zamora, a self-proclaimed “Chicago city girl” with no farming background who moved to Arizona a year ago. “The residents educated me on the whole chicken process,” she added. “They have a lot of experience.”
Chickens also help alleviate behaviors associated with dementia, such as confusion, frustration, and restlessness.
Instead of healing a person, Zamora said, “It’s easy to take a person’s hand and watch the chickens and laugh at the ducks going underwater.”
The birds have also been a boon to family members who visit the center, Zamora said. COVID-19 limits where they can go, but they are free to socialize in the co-op. Plus, she noted, sharing time watching chickens and ducks makes visits more meaningful.
“With memory care, conversations can get very difficult and families can come away disappointed. [because] there was little conversation or interaction,” Zamora said. “Going to the chicken coop gives them something to do together.”
Check out the chicks
Where: Hawthorn Court in Ahwatukee, 13822 S. 46th Place, Ahwatukee.
When: The public can visit from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday; volunteers welcome
Info: 480-598-1224; hawthorncourtseniorliving.com