Singing parakeets and the miracle of living things

Michelle Otter

New Berlin, 1991. That is where the story of Eden Alternative, a curious experiment, begins. A young doctor named Bill Thomas became the medical director of the Chase Memorial Nursing Home. With his fresh look, he saw despair in every corner of the nursing home. It took an injection of life to tackle loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. He quickly introduced measures to defeat "the three plagues". I believe that today we can be inspired by Thomas's ideas - to ward off loneliness.

Actually, the measures were simple. According to Thomas, life was needed and that is why he wanted to introduce living things. He pleaded for greenery in every room, for a vegetable and flower garden, and for animals. His persuasion led the board to agree to introduce two dogs, four cats, and one parakeet for each resident, to the care home. What Thomas had not anticipated was that all hundred parakeets were delivered when the cages had not yet arrived. But that wasn't even the biggest challenge.

That turned out to be the battle between two world views: was it important to keep the institution running, or to offer a home to the elderly? Staff views were radically opposed to Thomas's idea. They believed that the home existed primarily to ensure the health and safety of the elderly. The introduction of animals entailed risks. In addition, the law did not allow keeping more than one animal in a nursing home. There was also resistance from caretakers to take care of the animals: it was not their responsibility to clean up dog poo.

Gradually, the staff managed to take care of the animals as well. It became a shared responsibility to fill the nursing home with life. This was partly because it quickly became impossible to ignore the effect on residents. Researchers summarize the effects in figures. Compared to another home, residents in Chase were prescribed half fewer medicines. The cost of medicines in Chase was only 38% of that of the control home. And mortality dropped by 15% over two years. Residents who had withdrawn completely, offered themselves to the nurses to walk a round with the dog. They also started laughing and beaming again. They took care of the parakeets who sang so beautifully. That is Thomas's idea about the power of living things in a nutshell.

When I read about this experiment I found two aspects very interesting. First, how can living things, outside of human contact, help relieve loneliness? The Eden Alternative offered residents in Chase the opportunity to bite into something beyond their own existence. Philosopher Josiah Royce described this basic human need in his book The Philosophy of Loyalty By being more than just housed, fed, safe and alive, we ensure that our existence doesn't feel meaningless and empty. With the experiment, Thomas showed that living things can offer that "little bit more". In a place with boredom, something alive offers spontaneity. In a place of helplessness, something alive gives the chance to take care of another being. And in a place of loneliness something lively offers company.

A second question: how does the existing culture in organizations and institutions contribute to loneliness? Thomas's experiment showed that the existing culture and routines made it difficult to tackle the three plagues. Care for living things went against the views of the caregiver to keep the elderly safe and as healthy as possible. But this often meant that aging in a nursing home was accompanied by the absence of a higher purpose. While the caregiver tried to perform her role as well as possible, the older person was reduced from person to customer or patient. The Eden Alternative changed the view so that the older person as resident or human human was central. Care for the animal meant care for the human being. Old age was no longer just a disease. It was the beginning of a new phase. A phase with a right to life. Where it is nice to be able to make new connections. With plant, human or animal.

Even today, we try to fulfill our roles as caregiver, customer, project leader, patient, student, teacher, neighbor or family member in the best possible way in our lives. But while we are busy performing these roles, we sometimes forget that we are all human too. With that a right to make the connection. To ward off loneliness - and the other two plagues. What are you going to try?

Michelle Otter was an analyst at ftrprf. She wrote this article in a personal capacity for the theme Social Cohesion


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