When warden Lynne Walker introduced her elderly residents to hen keeping, she never guessed how it would bring them out of their own ‘shells’ and create a party atmosphere.
Ask any of the residents on this North East sheltered housing scheme how they like their eggs in the morning and the answer would be the same – fresh. Whether they’re poached, boiled, fried or scrambled, they can guarantee they’ll be just that – because they’ve been laid on their doorstep.
Loved and cared for by a group of 70 to 90-year-old men and women at Wood Green sheltered housing, Gateshead, the happy hens were introduced by Lynne 18 months ago and there have been some surprising benefits.
“I’ve been the warden here for 37 years and I’ve never seen such a dramatic change in people since we starting keeping hens. The men in particular are socialising more, so there’s less isolation and loneliness caused by shyness. It has even helped people coping with bereavement. They’re learning about each other – not just hens – and getting back into life. You can actually see the life reappear in some people’s eyes. I get very emotional just thinking about it,” she says.
Yet when Lynne first mentioned the HenPower project, a scheme backed by National Lottery funding, she initially got some strange looks. “Some people thought I was daft,” she admits. “They couldn’t understand where we’d keep them and were worried about noise and attracting vermin as well as the responsibility of feeding and cleaning them.”
But after a group discussion, they agreed to give it a go. In October 2012 the first brood of eight – Ethel, Joyce, Doreen, Jocelyn, Jenny, Rose, Pam and Belle (named after residents) – arrived to live in a special pen in the car park near the communal lounge area.
'We knew nothing about hens to start with so it was a real challenge to everybody'
Almost instantly, they became a conversation piece as residents mucked in together to learn how to provide the best care. “We knew nothing about hens to start with so it was a challenge for everybody,” adds Lynne. But within no time they’d mastered the basics and as well as collecting 14 eggs a day, were bonding with their neighbours like never before as they shared the responsibility for their care.
Resident Pat Cain (77) who was widowed a year ago when her husband Les died after a long struggle with Parkinson’s Disease and dementia, admits the hens have been a big help in coping with her grief. They’re great entertainment; some are bossier than others – you could sit for hours just watching them and chatting with the other ladies. It’s become a real focus.”
As widow Doreen Railton (88) admits: “We love them! It is like living in the country. You know the eggs are fresh because they have such beautiful yellow yolks.” Soon her grandchildren – particularly the youngest, Zac (4) – were looking forward to taking home an egg from Nana’s hens.
“Another advantage has been how it has bridged the generation gap,” says Lynne. Children from the local community visit and some have hens named after them. The residents visit local schools and groups to give talks about henkeeping.“They have become experts and their confidence has grown massively,” says Lynne.
It is the men though, who have perhaps benefited most from the project. “Men on their own tend not to mix socially as well as women,” says Lynne. “They don’t get together and chat the way women do. But the hens have really given them something to talk about and they tend to do the hands-on work of caring for them.”
Many of the women are happy to make cakes, quiches and egg-based dishes for communal buffets so everyone gets a taste of their success.
'They’re great entertainment – you could watch them for hours'
Since they started, the brood has expanded and they now have 24 hens and three cockerels. They’ve hatched 17 chicks in an incubator in the laundry room and hens have been sold at auction by residents. Whatever money is raised goes back to the fund to buy food for the hens. Eggs are left in a basket and residents are asked to make a small donation.
“To other people thinking of doing the same, I’d say go ahead,” Lynne urges. “I’ve found out more about the residents through this project than ever before. “Sometimes I just go home and laugh at the antics of the day. I can be helping one resident put his support stockings on while arguing with him about who’s laid which egg! It’s quite comical really.”
- We're thrilled to announce that Hen Power has just been pledged £1 million by the National Lottery Good Causes fund. To find out more, or to find a good cause in your area, visit www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk
- Here's the recent BBC coverage:
Photographs © John Millar/UNP