There’s something unusual about Neville Williams House and you hear it before you see it. That sound is the loud, persistent oinking from one of the more unexpected residents of this Birmingham older people’s care home: Penny the pig.
Penny is a kunekune pig to be precise – a New Zealand breed whose name means “fat and round” in Maori and Penny certainly lives up to that billing. “She’s a bit of a pudding,” laughs Julie Hanvey, the home’s activities manager.
As we approach Penny’s pen a friendly barrel, covered in black and white patched fur, greets us with a barrage of increasingly excitable guttural oinks.
Ingrid Page, the home’s farm manager, drops a big red plastic ball with food hidden inside it into the pen and Penny leaps on it, pushing it around her pen to knock out the tasty morsels inside.
As you might have guessed from Page’s job title, Penny is not the only animal living at Neville Williams House. On the opposite side of the path from Penny are two goats, Ron and Bob, who are playfully bashing their heads together. “They are absolutely hilarious these two,” says Page.
On spotting us, the silver-furred Ron and black-haired Bob stop their head butting and jump up to greet us, standing with their front hooves on the just-above-waist height fence bordering their enclosure. We pat their heads and Page hands out two huge flowerheads of broccoli to the pair, who immediately drop down and start chomping away.
Next to Ron and Bob’s pen is a fully enclosed area with chickens, Khaki Campbell ducks and a single grey speckled Indian runner duck. The latter is a flightless duck from Indonesia which stands upright, like a penguin, and prefers to run on land than swim.
Parrots and rabbits
Further along the path there are more animals. A hut of guinea pigs. An aviary with green finches singing away inside. Next to that, a pen that is home to a quartet of rabbits and, beyond them, another larger aviary where four African grey and three green Amazon parrots live. “They don’t talk,” says Page of the parrots. “I think that’s because there’s enough of them to not feel the need to, although they do wolf whistle sometimes.”
There are also unofficial members of the farm. A magpie that took to hanging out with the chickens and Page’s two pet dogs: Polly, a cheeky Jack Russell-border terrier cross, and Betty, an affectionate black dog with “a bit of everything in her”. Polly and Betty are such regulars at the home they border on counting as staff members. “They’ve been coming here for about 3 years now so they know their job,” says Page.
But Neville Williams House hasn’t built this impressive petting farm to try and make Old MacDonald envious. The real purpose of its menagerie is to enhance the wellbeing of the older people and dementia patients who live there.
The idea began when Marcus Fellows, the chief executive of the parent company of the home, Broadening Choices for Older People (BCOP), visited a few care homes in the Netherlands.
“Marcus got involved with other societies in Holland and it’s a big thing in Holland, and it was something that Marcus always wanted to introduce,” says Hanvey. “So he went and did some more research and thought, ‘Right, we’re going to do it’. It’s been going quite a few years here at Neville Williams now and has expanded throughout time.”
The benefits for residents of having the farm are, Hanvey says, little short of amazing. She tells me about one resident, who has since passed away and was in the advanced stages of dementia. “He didn’t speak to people and would barely open his eyes,” she recalls. “But when the dogs came over to him, he would brighten up. It’s very rewarding at that stage to see even the slightest reaction; the families feel it’s brilliant too.”
Animals are a great distraction
The chance to brush, feed and stroke the animals also helps residents with movement and to calm them. “They are excellent at desensitising situations,” says Page. “If someone doesn’t want to take a pill and is getting aggravated, if a dog appears it completely desensitises the situation. It’s a distraction.”
The farm also makes for better family visits. “With young children you can keep them occupied talking to granny in her room only for so long,” says Hanvey. “But bring them out here to the farm and they are really involved. It’s like a family day out. Some of the residents who are very quiet will be out there with their grandchildren and all of a sudden they will really start conversing with them. So the farm’s a breakthrough for the family as well.”
And because the care home is animal-friendly, families are also allowed to bring in their pets when they visit their relatives. But sometimes the benefits just come from the joy that having animals around brings. “When residents are in the garden, they love the sound of the birds,” says Hanvey. “You can be talking about something else and all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oooohhh’.”
For some the animals offer a chance to reminisce and that’s the case for Brenda, whose own pet rabbit Jonty is among the four that live on the farm.
We take Jonty, an 11-year-old silver fox rabbit, to see Brenda in her room. “Brenda and her daughter, who sadly passed away, used to breed championship rabbits,” says Hanvey as we head down the corridors past recreations of old-fashioned sweet shops and 1960s kitchens that are designed to jog memories. “It was a hobby they shared together so seeing Jonty brings back a lot of memories of her time with her daughter.”
Brenda instantly lights up when Jonty arrives. “Has he had his teeth done?” she asks Page as Jonty snuggles up for a cuddle with Brenda on her bed. “The vet has looked at him and he doesn’t need it,” she replies. “Did you do his nails?” Brenda checks. I have, replies Page.
While Jonty can’t live in Brenda’s room, she can go outside through the patio doors of her room and see the rabbit pen from there. “If I go out there for me dirty habit, I can see him out there,” Brenda explains. Soon Brenda is telling stories about her prize-winning Shetland ponies and the dogs she has owned, including a Staffordshire bull terrier that once killed nine rats in a single day on the farm she lived on.
Brenda isn’t the only resident with a pet who lives at Neville Williams. Fellow resident Vera, 79, has her budgie Brandy who lives in a cage that is kept in her room. “I’ve always had budgies,” she says. “Brandy doesn’t talk, but he tweets a lot. He’s very cheeky. Whenever I try to watch television he’s there tweeting.”
While Brandy gets to stay in her room, he isn’t allowed out of his padlocked cage. “If he got out of the cage, he’d want to go outside and he’d hurt himself going against the window,” says Vera. Hanvey adds that there’s also a risk of other residents accidentally opening the cage too if it wasn’t padlocked.
It’s a situation that highlights how introducing animals into a care home requires a lot of thought about how to protect both residents and the animals while allowing maximum contact between them.
That thought is reflected in the very design of the petting zoo. The height of the fence for the pig and goat pens are designed so that residents can still stroke or feed them whether they are in a wheelchair or standing up while also being high enough to keep animals in and to put residents who are less comfortable with the animals at ease. Ensuring the farm animals are not cut off from the residents like animals in a zoo is important says Hanvey: “You can over design it and make it too formal. That’s what we try to avoid.”
The behaviour of the animals also needs managing. Penny might be friendly but she’s too large and too boisterous to be allowed to roam outside her pen. “The goats, although they are naughty, you can bring them out but the pig is different,” says Page. “If she sees or thinks there’s food, you’ve got no chance – she is so food motivated. You do have to be very careful because the residents are often quite frail and so you can’t have a pig bounding around. I have brought the pig out and she has played football with her food ball, but only with the residents watching her from a safe viewing point.”
Other considerations include people who dislike certain animals or have allergies. “We do have to be aware of allergies of course,” says Hanvey. “Some people are allergic to furs and if, for example, they are allergic to rabbit fur, we make sure they don’t have immediate contact so we have to be aware of that. Some people are frightened of birds, so people have to feel secure that the birds are not let out and won’t land on them.”
Maintaining the farm also requires registering with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). “All the animals are registered with Defra and their procedures followed,” says Page. Then there are the urban foxes to deal with. “We’ve just had a new bunch of chickens,” says Page. “Unfortunately our old lot were eaten by a fox.”
Fox attacks have forced the home to enclose the entire chicken and duck area in wire-mesh fencing. “We’ve closed the top of it,” says Hanvey. “It was more open and they used to have more of a run of the garden area, but now we’ve had to net the tops and things like that.”
Smiles on their faces
But while creating and managing an on-site farm brings challenges, the benefits more than make up for it. Since opening the farm at Neville Williams, BCOP has set up another at its other Birmingham nursing home Robert Harvey House and is developing a third at another site. And as Vera and fellow resident Madge feed the goats in the last rays of the summer sun, the smiles on their faces, giggles and oohs and ahhs say all that needs to be said about the effect the farm has on the people who live there.