Helen Rippier Wheeler,
Wednesday December 03, 2014 - 01:31:00 PM

A while back, my eye was caught by the title of a small volume on the library’s New Books shelves — The Chicken Chronicles. Turkeys have been much in recent news. Dogs, cats, lambs all appeal, but chickens!? I’m not now referring to the sometimes vernacular chicks or hens … Keeping Up Appearances’s Onslow refers to a broody woman. Perish forbid. 

The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the angels who have returned with my memories: Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, The Gladyses, & Babe; A Memoir was published by New Press in 2011. I’m not especially interested in chickens, but The Chicken Chronicles was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Walker, so into my book bag it went. At the time, I didn’t have in mind a possible Senior Power column connection, other than Walker’s age (70). 

The Chicken Chronicles is about human-animal relationships. Rural northern California too. Walker is Mommy. She reflects on compassion, bullying, death, friendship, meditation, and more in 37 essays about her Girls as they free-range or not. Here are a few titles: What do chickens like to do? — The old fox — St. Michael, lover of animals and children — The song behind the world: the nuns of Dharamsala — From: poems for my girls — Grandfather Gandhi-and mommy’s experiments with reality — A few kind words about stupidity — In the night mommy hears mangoes falling — Mommy writes about Hortensia — Mommy is so thankful to have you appear — The first day — Day two — Even bullies are missed and loved… 

Free-range — not to be confused with open range – is a method of farming in which at least part of the day, chickens in this case, can roam freely outdoors, rather than being confined in an enclosure around the clock. Free range systems usually offer the opportunity for extensive locomotion and sunlight prevented by indoor housing systems. The term may apply to dairy farming, eggs, meat, etc. . 


I wondered about chickens and old people elsewhere. It appears that in England senior men are really into chicks and hens. Jessica Salter reports on a scheme to introduce “hen keeping” to elderly men in particular that is turning out to have a miraculous effect on their wellbeing by reducing isolation and depression. (“Chickens helping the elderly tackle loneliness.” Daily Telegraph [London], October 31, 2014) 

The idea came about in 2012, when a man at a dementia care center kept telling staff he missed his girls, meaning his hens. Equal Arts, a charity providing creative projects for older people, contacted the Environment Agency and purchased six hens and a secondhand hen house. 

There’s a photo of Owen Turnbull, 84, giving a five-day-old chick a bath in the sink of a communal launderette. The chick, chirping away as he talks to it, is one of four orphans. ‘Their mam died three days ago,’ he says. ‘I found her when I went to feed them. I was sad about losing her – I do get attached to them.’ For the past 9 years Turnbull has lived in Wood Green, sheltered-accommodation bungalows in Gateshead, Newcastle, with his 82-year-old wife, for whom he is the main carer. There are also 70 other residents, 13 hens and 15 chicks. The chickens are all named after women who live at Wood Green. The eggs are sold (£1.25 for six) in the central common room. 

Equal Arts set up the HenPower project in eight pilot sites, ranging from care homes to assisted-living schemes like Wood Green. In addition to practical poultry keeping, there are hen-based activities that include art, dance and singing. 

Although open to women, the project was aimed at men. Equal Arts and HenPower contend that men tend not to have such broad social networks as women and to have very different hobbies, and hen keeping appeals to certain groups of men, who are vulnerable to depression in care homes. Having kept hens before, Thomas ‘Ossie’ Cresswell agreed to get involved, although he didn’t like the idea of keeping them as pets. But he became one of the most vocal supporters. A core group out of the 23 at Wood Green embraced HenPower. They purchased an incubator and went to auction to buy fertilized eggs. 

An important part of HenPower is interacting in the community, so they take the chickens on roadshow trips to schools and retirement homes. ‘You go in and they’re all looking at the wall. We go in with three hens and start chatting and you’d think a bomb had dropped, the place comes alive.’ The project has made a big difference in 87-year-old Cresswell’s life, too. Twice widowed, he has lived in his bungalow at Wood Green for 16 years. Since joining HenPower he has ‘made a lot of friends’ and says, ‘It gives you a purpose for life.’ 

The U.K. Campaign To End Loneliness (“Connections in Older Age”) estimates isolation increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 50%. A study by the University of Northumbria found that male participants all reported improved wellbeing and reduced depression and loneliness. In one dementia care home since the hens arrived, violent incidents by residents were down by 50%, and the use of antipsychotic drugs was so reduced that they were no longer issued routinely. 

The Hen Men is a “Vimeo” documentary from meerkatfilms. Alan, Owen and Ozzy are old men grappling with the challenges of growing old in a modern world. They expose the seldom explored issues of loneliness, depression and dementia but find comfort and company in the new hens at their quirky supported living scheme. 

Clearly, in England, HenPower is manpower. 



In a move that brings the people of New Jersey one step closer to having the medical option of aid in dying, the New Jersey State Assembly voted 41-31 in a bipartisan fashion to pass the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act (A2270). “Compassion & Choices’ Death with Dignity Option Wins in Watershed Assembly Vote. Aid in Dying Law Now More Likely for People of New Jersey” November 13, 2014 (Trenton, N.J.)  


California’s experiment aimed at moving almost 500,000 low-income seniors and disabled people automatically into managed care has been rife with problems in its first 6 months, leading to widespread confusion, frustration and resistance. "California’s Managed Care Project For Poor Seniors Faces Backlash," by Anna Gorman (Kaiser Health News via WebMD, November 19, 2014). 

The California project stems from the Affordable Care Act, which does not mandate managed care but promotes better integration of the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Managed care is nothing new to California, which already has extensive experience in both the public and private sectors. 

The Los Angeles County Medical Association, concerned that the project is ill-conceived, ill-designed and will jeopardize the health of many of the state’s most vulnerable population – the poor, the elderly and the disabled — filed a lawsuit to block the project. 

There is a lot riding on the pilot — the largest of its kind in the nation. The patients involved are among the most expensive to treat – so-called “dual eligibles,” who receive both Medicare, the health insurance program for the elderly and disabled, and Medicaid, which provides coverage for the poor who are able to locate a physician who accepts Medi-Medi. Over the 3 years of the demonstration project, California is focusing on 456,000 of the state’s 1.1 million dual eligibles. 

Many beneficiaries have received stacks of paperwork they don’t understand. Some have been mistakenly shifted to the new insurance coverage or are unaware they were enrolled. Forty-four of those targeted for enrollment through Oct. 1 opted out. One rejected the managed care program because his doctor said he wouldn’t see him anymore if he was enrolled. Doctors have been among the most vocal critics of the switch, and the state is having trouble getting some to participate. The state has been besieged with questions. In September alone, there were nearly 50,000 calls to the state’s health care services department about the project. 

State officials acknowledge some transition problems but contend the project will provide consumers with more coordinated care that improves their health, reduces their costs and helps keep them in their homes. In addition, officials estimate the program could save the state more than $300 million in fiscal year 2014-2015. Until now, many of these patients have had to maneuver through two massive government bureaucracies, each with separate rules. Medicare pays for most doctor visits and hospitalizations, and Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid) covers nursing and other long-term care. The patients are more vulnerable than most Medicare beneficiaries, more likely to have Alzheimer’s, diabetes and mental health problems. Many see multiple doctors in different practices, sometimes receiving unnecessary medications or duplicative tests. Old people are typically afflicted with 3 diseases. 

In most — but not all– counties, patients have a choice of plans. The pilot program’s enrollment is occurring on a rolling basis and now includes five counties – San Mateo, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Riverside. The program will begin in Santa Clara County in January 2015 and then Orange County but will not move forward in Alameda County as originally planned. 

I continue to wonder what goes on under the guise of managed care and case managers in what was once the West Berkeley Senior Center building.