Prompted by a call from dementia-care specialist Randy Griffin, Ken Elkins created Bird Tales, a therapy program that uses avian stuffed animals and birdfeeder observations to treat people with dementia—a range of mental illnesses that affect the reasoning power of up to half of people over 85. At four facilities twice a month, Elkins (right), a Toyota TogetherGreen fellow who doubles as education program manager at Connecticut’s Bent of the River Audubon, works alongside trained staff to encourage 15 or so residents to handle the plushie birds and listen to each of their lifelike calls. In the best cases, his work triggers happy and soothing memories. (For a video of Elkins’s work, visit audm.ag/BirdTales.)
How do the birds help?
The other staff and I bring the sensory observation of birds—the colors, the sounds—and the chance to watch their behavior [at the feeders outside]. These are stimulating for people with dementia.
You start to see that smiles last longer on their faces, and some of them become much more talkative. Side effects from their medication make them drowsy—but [with us] they wake up. Some residents just come to sit and watch the birds.
Does any single patient stand out?
There was a woman who had poor eyesight. She was an equestrian her entire life. I put a barn swallow model in her hand and helped guide her fingers, to feel those long forked tails and the long wings and the small head with the little beak. Then we squeezed the belly and heard the bubbly call notes of a barn swallow. I asked her if she’d ever heard that before, and she said she remembered them from her days around horses.
What are some of the challenges?
People with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease can’t remember—and that was part of the learning process for me. Some of the participants will ask me the same question 10 or more times during a half-hour program. To them it’s the first time they’ve asked it. You have to treat them like they’ve never asked that question before.
Which bird is the favorite?
Definitely the cardinal. Because most of my audience is older women, they get a kick out of the fact that the female cardinal is the boss in the family. She has tens of different call notes, and the male performs a different function for each one. They love that he’s a well-trained husband—the giggles that go on are pretty good.
This story originally ran in the May-June 2013 issue of Audubon as "Happy Memories."