Older people in the Gateshead area have got the chicken bug in a big way – thanks to an initiative called HenPower

A new breed of older people is starting to emerge from the depths of bingo and pie and pea suppers. Shrugging off the urge to sit in high-backed chairs, watching wall-to-wall TV, the ‘Hensioners’ are taking to their gardens, unleashing their hen-thusiasm and sharing their newfound love of hen keeping with others.

Project leader Jos Forester-Melville told Your Chickens: “It’s an innovative, exciting project. We’ve teamed up with eight supported living schemes and are encouraging older people to engage in activities which will bring about long-term benefits and boost motivation.

“The project is designed to bridge the gap between independent and supported living and demonstrate that being in a care setting doesn’t mean that you have to give up your independence or engagement with the things that you’ve always liked. Indeed, it can offer up opportunities to try new things, like keeping hens!”

HenPower, which is funded by both the Heritage and Big Lottery Funds, and backed by Equal Arts, is aimed predominantly at older men, equipping them with the skills and knowledge to design bespoke chicken coops, choose rare breed hens and hatch and rear their own chicks. Their ‘Hen Roadshow’ visits older people’s care settings and schools, where they take their hen-thusiasm to share with others, explaining first hand what it is like to enjoy and share responsibilities at a time in life when most people are slowing down and not stepping into wellies.

Ossie Cresswell, a retired welder from Bill Quay, in east Gateshead, says: “I can’t stay away. Wey! I never thought I’d get to 87 and be doing something like this. Mind, we have a laugh. We could talk under water about hens.”

Retired taxi driver and henthusiast Alan Richards says: “To be honest, I was dead against it from the start. When Jos came last autumn to talk to us, I couldn’t imagine why people would want to keep hens in a place like this. I thought they’d encourage vermin and foxes and no one would be interested, but I have to hold my hands up and say I was wrong.

“Since the hens have come we never stop. Albert lets them out of a morning. Owen’s always digging for worms and cleaning them out, and I like to muck in where I can. We’ve just hatched a load of chicks, some in an incubator and some under a broody hen. It was amazing.

“A load of little ones came up from the school and we were able to share with them the chicks being born. The kids love it when we go into schools and do our Hen Roadshow, and we go to old people’s homes and tell them how much we enjoy looking after our hens. They’re all called after the ladies who live at Wood Green (a Gateshead sheltered living scheme).”

Mike Rungie, the chief executive of a group offering support services to enable older people in Australia, was impressed by HenPower during a recent visit to the UK. He said: “HenPower is magnificent because, in amidst all the normality, I was intrigued – and how rarely we are intrigued by life in a care home – with all the thinking, making, examining, creativity and wondering that goes with it. I like the way HenPower is building this into a life interest and not an event.”

On seeing her residents embrace their newly hatched arrivals, one sheltered scheme officer at Wood Green said: “HenPower is so diverse. We would never have thought about doing anything like this. It’s improved people’s wellbeing. It’s made people happier because they’ve got to know each other in ways that they never did. Who ever thought you’d get tears in your eyes seeing your residents watch chicks hatch.”

It’s hoped that HenPower can be rolled out nationally next year when Equal Arts have developed a series of online e-resources. Jos said: “We’ve had requests from up and down the country, but it’s hard to find time to do much else as the project is so involving for us all.

“We’ve just had a hen house delivered to one project, which has been built using a resident’s design ideas for an old railway carriage. The group has been busy assembling it with sculptor Neil Canavan and are now hoping to turn it into the smallest gallery in the North.”

Fountain Court, another supported living scheme in the area, hosts a HenPower art group under the watchful eye of illustrator Josie Brookes, and they immediately thought that the top-notch chicken coop could accommodate their hen masterpieces. “The residents are currently looking for a hen keeping celeb to officially open the Fountain Eggspress,” said Jos. “Any suggestions would be gratefully received and reimbursed with a large slice of quiche made from the group’s free range hens’ eggs!”

The project is being documented by Meerkat Films who hope to able to market the final cut, and a book will soon be underway in which residents will collate a series of interviews with people about their hen keeping experiences from the war years to the present day.

If you have a story to share, get in touch with Jos at jos@henpower.org

Find out more about HenPower by following them on Facebook or by going to their website equalarts.org.uk

Image(s) provided by:

Mark Henderson