May 19, 2013

Bird-Watching Program Helps Lift the Spirits of Dementia Patients

Photograph by Bob Sacha

Ken Elkins, an education program manager at the Southbury, Conn., center of the Audubon Society, shares one of his bird models with a Connecticut nursing-home resident.

Randy Griffin, a registered nurse, had long been looking for ways to improve the lives of Alzheimer’s patients.

Then one morning two years ago, as she sat outside at home watching two cardinals that had alighted on her husband’s bird feeder, she wondered: What if she could engage patients and the people who care for them in bird watching? Would that give them a lasting mood lift, as researchers have found happens when people with dementia are shown funny movies?

That was the beginning of Bird Tales, a program that Ms. Griffin, author of Changing the Culture for Dementia Care, developed with Ken Elkins, an education program manager at the Southbury, Conn., center of the Audubon Society.

With help from a $10,000 “innovation grant” from the Audubon Society’s TogetherGreen partnership with Toyota Motors, Ms. Griffin and Mr. Elkins devised ways to train nursing-home staff members to attract birds to their grounds and get Alzheimer’s patients involved in bird watching.

Mr. Elkins, who got some training from the Alzheimer’s Association, now leads Bird Tales meetings twice monthly at four nursing homes in Connecticut, all of which have converted to organic lawn care to better attract birds to their grounds.

Armed with large photos of different bird species and stuffed “bird models” that emit the related call of those birds when squeezed, Mr. Elkins spends about 30 minutes with each group of six to 15 Alzheimer’s patients, and trains nurses to do the same.

The four nursing homes that have used Bird Tales have been able to reduce the amount of medication needed to calm agitated patients, a sign that the bird watching is making a difference.

Now, efforts are under way to expand the approach.

Ms. Griffin says her program and other research demonstrates the value of visiting Alzheimer’s patients. In many cases family members and friends stop visiting because they assume that such patients don’t remember the visits or don’t know who the visitors are, but such diversions can lift a patient’s mood and overall well-being for hours afterward.

“Going back to the 1970s, the feeling that we could do nothing was prevalent,” Ms. Griffin says of the treatment options for Alzheimer’s. “We now know that there is someone inside until the end of this illness. We cannot cure it, but we have a way to make sure a person feels there is a life worth living.”

Send an e-mail to Holly Hall.