The power of feathered friends

United Kingdom (Newcastle )

Which came first: the chicken or this eggscellent idea?

Ok, that was rhetorical. It’s the chicken, obviously. Now for a real question: Know why eggs are different colours or why chickens sleep with one eye open? Because ‘Hensioners’ do.

Hensioners (that’s hen-loving pensioners) are at the heart of a quirky creative project called HenPower that’s providing feathered friends to older people. It’s simple: volunteers bring hens into care settings to give residents a sense of purpose. And some eggs.

Set up by creative ageing charity Equal Arts in 2011, the idea is to ‘hengage’ older people to build relationships through animal parenting, hen-keeping, hatching and creativity. Hensioners take ‘Henthusiasm’ to schools, dementia care settings and festivals in ‘Hen Road Shows’; they design coops, choose rare breeds, and bid for birds at auction – also engaging elderly residents in activities such as creative writing, music and movement, and photography. 

Equal Arts has an ethos of engaging older people through imagination. Although the intent behind HenPower is serious, the team is ready with all the puns – prepped to provide a cracking example of how playful arts activities can engage older people, improve health and wellbeing and reduce loneliness and isolation. 

Eight years ago, the team stumbled across the idea thanks to a man called Billy:

“Working in a dementia care setting in Gateshead we came across Billy, an older resident who was restless and unsettled,” programme manager Jos Forester-Melville explains. “He paced back and forward and at certain times of the day, he tried to make a run for the door to get out. He constantly repeated female names. The residents were edgy, the staff overworked and Billy wasn’t a settled soul.” 

The team worked closely with the manager and identified that the names that Billy kept repeating were the names of the hens he’d kept when he was younger, and the reason he was trying to get out was so he could gather the eggs or feed the hens, or simply sit and watch them for pleasure. “We bought Billy six hens and brought them in a cardboard box. We set them down in the garden, encouraged him to open the box and instantly, Billy’s shoulders dropped. He had found what he was looking for. He was rested and had rediscovered his role…to care for the hens.” 

Today the programme has a twin focus: incorporating creative activities with caring for the chickens. Once the hens are moved in, residents and staff take part in weekly creative sessions run by Equal Arts’ artists. This focuses a great deal on what’s known as the ‘Imagination Model’ – allowing people to live in the moment, explore their creativity with no wrong/right outcome. Groups might work with the same textiles artist for 12 weeks creating hen-inspired ceramics, cushions and bunting, doing feather printing, or creating plant pots for the garden area and hen house. “Often the hens will be brought into the arts session.”

Once coupled with creativity, the walls of the care home become a gallery space. Relatives are keen to see the work their loved ones are taking part in. Care staff grow to recognise the value of this relationship-centred approach and more and more care homes are asking if they can take part in HenPower.

“Ageing well means having choice, having fun and having a choice about the fun you can have!” – Jos Forester-Melville, HenPower 

Ageing well includes having the opportunities to learn new skills or rekindle the ones you’d pushed to one side. By carving this niche for themselves and becoming experts in sharing that knowledge with others, Hensioners become pioneers in the field of creative ageing and others are interested to hear their voice because it’s authentic. 

In 2014, Equal Arts applied for National Lottery Funding of one million pounds and rolled the project out across the UK. Today there are more than 2,000 pensioners looking after hens in more than 60 care homes and schools in the UK and internationally. HenPower are currently working with care groups to set up geographical clusters of projects across the UK. Each care home is coupled with a school to develop dementia-friendly schools. 

Children can face some of the same issues that older people do, like social isolation and loneliness. HenPower is a great vehicle for improving community cohesion through cross-generational working – particularly working with nurseries and primary schools, but also a range of other community-based organisations – offering the stimulus, curiosity and focal point for creative projects from gardening to local history. Residents delight in having the pupils visit and engage with them, especially in the allotments working with the hens. Other weeks, residents and staff will go across to the school – to learn alongside the same class for the entirety of project with a shared outcome – and results have included textiles banners, art exhibitions and even a stage play.

“We’d like to help ‘rehenergise’ older people all across the UK and encourage this relationship-centred approach, which uses hen-keeping as a diversionary tool to reduce agitation or challenging behaviour,” Jos adds. “It can also offer a different conversation when relatives and visitors arrive. Many older people have said how many more visitors they get since having hens – especially from grandchildren!”

Taking part in creative activities such as the arts has a huge direct influence in improving a person’s wellbeing in later life.Creative expression in artistic activities has also been found to be an important way for people with a dementia to express and access emotions when cognitive abilities are diminishing. Staff in care homes have even reported a reduction in the use of antipsychotic medication when the hens are present in the pensioners’ lives.

Kittens and puppies don’t have the monopoly on cute.

AtlasAction: To bring HenPower to your community contact Equal Arts.

Written by

Lisa Goldapple, Editor, Atlas of the Future ( (21 November 2019)

Project leader

Jos Forester-Melville


This project has been selected as part of AgeFutures, a new storytelling project that maps the innovations transforming the lives of older people, and the designers, entrepreneurs and community leaders – across all generations – behind them. Atlas of the Future is excited to partner with Independent Age.

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Hens + art = this is all heart

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