The Abbeyfield Society is bringing animals into their homes to interact with residents and to encourage conversation, trigger memories and just for fun
Why donkeys in the lounge make for a happier home – Telegraph
At first, you can’t quite believe it. No sooner have the residents of Abbeyfield House, in Alnwick, Northumberland, taken their seats in the lounge after lunch, than two small donkeys come trotting in across the carpet.
Enter, at a gentle pace, Fancy Pants and Fabergé. Both are immaculately groomed and accompanied by their equally well-dressed owners, John and Lorraine Rae.
Surprisingly, the arrival of these two delicately hooved newcomers does not cause a stir. That’s because unusual and offbeat activities are part of the daily routine, both here and at the 516 other Abbeyfield homes across the country.
And experiences don’t come much newer than having two holly-bedecked donkeys walking across carpet that’s more used to the tread of tea-trolley wheels. There is, however, method behind the madness.
“It has been proven that animal companionship and interaction can help alleviate loneliness and trigger successful interaction among residents,” says the Abbeyfield website. “Animals have a way of helping people to forget pain for a while, join in conversations about memories of pets, as well as encouraging people to enjoy laughter and fun together.”
And today’s events underline the truth of those words, as the presence of the animals unlocks memories from the pensioners’ past. “We had rabbits and hens, and my dad used to have a hutch for his ferrets,” recalls
98-year-old Evelyn Houston. “We had a farm, and I was always riding horses,” says 93-year-old Mary Vickers.
All around the room, then, as the Abbeyfield residents gently stroke the donkeys’ backs, long-forgotten memories emerge.
“A lot of people here had animals before they came,” says Freda Snaith, one of the carers. “They miss them when they don’t have them any more.”
No question about it, says retired vet John Spence, whose 100-year-old mother, Barbara, lives at Abbeyfield. “My mother always had Westies and Scotties when she was young,” he says. “There is no doubt that when she had to stop having animals, she found it very hard.”
For this afternoon, however, the home has been transformed into a menagerie. No sooner have the donkeys started to make friends than they are joined by a supporting cast of smaller animals.
Most of these are supplied by mother-and-son team Stef and Scott Wraith. Together, they run a show-and-stroke enterprise called Animal Antics, in which they take on abandoned animals, giving them a new home and a new lease of life.
Hence the presence of two very relaxed rabbits, Honey and Lola.
“She’s a Cross Netherland Dwarf Rabbit,” says Stef of Lola. “When she came to live with us, she was depressed, because her sister had died, but now she really enjoys these outings.”
At which point, as if to test out this theory, it’s time to send in the reptiles. First, a bearded dragon (think large, leathery, bumpy grey lizard), followed by a wriggling, orange-and-white-coloured corn snake.
Both of these have made the short journey from the home of Abbeyfield carer Catherine Lofts. “We’ve got lots more at home,” says her husband, Steve, trying to stop a snake from disappearing up his sleeve. “There’s a chameleon, a gecko, a skink, plus two cats and some tropical fish.”
Next star turn is Bracken, the barred owl. He, in turn, is accompanied by another bearded dragon. “This one’s not as big as he should be,” Scott tells the residents. “He’s fully grown, but he suffers from something called metabolic bone disease.” Next minute, Scott is kneeling down, letting the residents handle the mice he’s brought with him. “I’m not sure why it is,” he says, “but the boy mice smell much worse than the girls.”
In terms of engaging the pensioners’ attention, it’s an ever-changing, hour-long array of animals and hands-on activity. Even those residents who don’t want to touch the animals still have questions to ask. However, it’s not just the number of creatures on show that is remarkable about this afternoon, it’s the number of people involved. As well as the dozen or so residents, there are three times as many care staff, catering staff, relatives and other volunteers in attendance – underlining the notion that elderly people need not sepulchral peace and quiet, but stimulation.
The donkeys are doing their best to meet that requirement. Despite being in a small room surrounded by people they don’t know, they show no signs of impatience or reluctance. They seem content to clip-clop around, being patted by people on all sides, while wearing sprigs of holly. The Christmas spirit is well and truly here.