“Some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright.”
– The Shawshank Redemption
As humans, we can’t help but admire – and even envy – the freedom and beauty of birds. One reason for this may be the tension we experience when confronting the mental, physical and emotional confinement of some of humankind’s brightest and most beautiful. An example of this phenomenon, hitting close to home for many of us, is dementia, a range of mental illnesses that currently affects the reasoning power of at least 5.2 million Americans and is cited as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
Many of us have witnessed the damaging effects of this disease. We see beloved friends and family members transition from being assured and articulate to paranoid and incoherent, thoughtful and warmhearted to inconsiderate and aggressive, passionate and independent to despondent and wholly dependent on others. We see dementia lock up their personalities, gifts and once-able bodies within memory care units with door alarms, minds dominated by road blocks and relationships without context. We see it seal them off from familiar surroundings and the comforts of the world they knew – and sometimes even from the outside world altogether.
However, as imprisoned as individuals living with dementia may seem, experts in the field of memory care are discovering keys to unlocking hidden memories, temperaments and attitudes. Nature has proven to be one of those precious keys.
Through a therapeutic program called Bird Tales, staff and volunteers of Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory were privileged to offer this healing power of nature to residents of three Denver area assisted living facilities in 2013 and 2014. Thanks to a Toyota TogetherGreen Innovation Grant from Audubon, RMBO became one of just three organizations in the United States to offer this program, which was co-developed by dementia care specialist Randy Griffin and Ken Elkins, education program manager at Audubon Center at Bent of the River.
Aimed at improving the quality of life and creating meaningful experiences for people living with dementia, Bird Tales combines the multisensory stimulation (sight, sound and touch) of Audubon plush birds with the engagement of wild birds right outside residents’ windows.
Time and again, RMBO staff and volunteers were blown away by how effective this program was on a number of levels. Participants of Bird Tales would smile, laugh and react positively to the Audubon plush birds. Assisted living facility staff members would also grin ecstatically, hinting at the deeper story behind the residents’ responses. When facility staff members witnessed normally stoic and quiet residents suddenly erupt into laughter and talking, they knew something profound was taking place deep within the residents’ hearts and minds. And these shifts were not just isolated occurrences. Rather, they frequently reported higher levels of peace and contentment among residents for hours beyond their 45 minutes of interaction during the program.
Improving Bird Habitat
In addition, facility staff members holistically impacted residents, family members and even themselves through Bird Tales by improving bird habitat outside their facilities with native plants and feeding stations. One facility got so excited about this idea that it held a ground-breaking ceremony with RMBO prior to developing plans and pouring the concrete for an accessible path around a brand-new, bird-friendly garden adjacent to where it is adding a new memory care unit.
Since then, RMBO staff and volunteers have added 108 native plants to the garden, and the healing power of nature continues, as residents now leave the confines of their rooms and stroll around the garden that is growing for the birds and, just as importantly, for them.
Bird Tales by the Numbers
In 2013 and 2014, RMBO:
- facilitated 45 separate Bird Tales programs for a total of 512 residents
- offered Bird Tales to 3 different assisted living facilities
- provided residents with 33 hours of therapeutic programming
- installed 3 bird feeding stations and planted 194 native plants, enhancing approximately 0.2 acres of habitat at assisted living facilities
- co-created 1 new bird-friendly garden
Thank you to RMBO’s amazing Volunteer Naturalists for assisting with Bird Tales, as well as the staff at our three partner facilities: Inglenook At Brighton, Northglenn Heights Assisted Living Community and St. Andrew’s Village. We would also like to thank Toyota TogetherGreen, the National Audubon Society and Ken Elkins of Audubon Center at Bent of the River for providing funding, support, training and inspiration to implement Bird Tales in Colorado. And thank you to all of the members and supporters of RMBO who provide the support needed to help us bring the healing power of nature to people.
Reflecting on Bird Tales and its impact on her residents, one care services director said:
“We have found through this wonderful program how incredibly comforting, reassuring and secure the sound of bird calls, vocalizations and songs can be to those in distress. … This program is nothing short of amazing. One day, we may all be afflicted with these horrific diseases. If I am, I only hope Bird Tales and programs like it are available to me.”
~ Tyler Edmondson, Community Education Coordinator