DENVER (CBS4) – Therapy animals are a common treatment to help people dealing with a variety of issues, and while many people may think of dogs as the best companion, birds can have a similar effect. At Balfour Senior Living in the Stapleton neighborhood they have become the preferred choice for residents.
“The first couple of times that I came, I just fell in love with it,” Janet Stensurd, a resident at Balfour. “Some of us who had kind of been down in the dumps were smiling and laughing.”
For about a year, Jackie Kendall-Gebel has volunteered her time as a pet therapy handler at the senior living residence. She grew up in a farm with chickens and has always known the impact birds can have on humans. The nonprofit organization, Joyous Paws, offers free pet activities in Denver and Colorado Springs. They visit with seniors, children, and anyone else who may love animals but cannot have pets.
“I found out that animals can be soothing. They can help people when they’re hurting,” she said. “There’s something about animals that give you more permission to interact.”
Many of the residents at Balfour need assisted living or memory care. The residence provides monthly programs including art, music, and classes to help seniors living there. One of their goals is to encourage social interaction and residents say pet therapy definitely helps to foster more engagement among each other.
“This has been a wonderful opportunity for me to kind of put my heart back at ease and love the world again,” said Stensurd. “When I see that’s on the calendar, I’m like, ‘Whoohoo’ it’s that day, it’s going to be a good day,’ and it always is.”
Kendall-Gebel brings the same two birds to Balfour each week. Named “Moose” and “Squirrel” after the cartoon “Rocky & Bullwinkle,” these two Old Dutch Capuchine Pigeons can be held for an hour without any issues. These birds can show unconditional love and because they are small and easy to hold, they are sometimes preferred to other therapy pets. They also don’t have large beaks or make loud noises like other birds.
“I have enjoyed this very much, bringing them to places where people have struggles with communication or memory,” she said.
In some cases, people who had a fear of birds come around after experiencing these pigeons with Kendall-Gebel. She encourages any resident who wants to try, hold and spend time with the birds. In the time she has been working with these residents, she has noticed a huge impact on their happiness and social life.
“I find this very satisfying otherwise I wouldn’t do it,” she said. “There’s something about watching the smiles and watching people that are in pain or suffering start to relax.”
The birds wear flight suits, which serve as a harness and a diaper. The vest makes it easier for them to spend so much time with humans. Week to week, the relationship between birds and these seniors grows.
“I think the more that that same person holds them, the more the bird knows them, the more they know the bird, the more the connection is made,” she said.
Stensurd moved to Colorado from Iowa to be closer to her daughter. She has been living at the residence for about a year and says the work Kendall-Gebel does has been so helpful to her adjusting to a new life after retirement.
“This lady is amazing at what she does,” she said of Kendall-Gebel. “I just thought ‘Wow, what an awesome person to put this all together and helping all these people calm down.'”
But even she was a skeptic at first. Many people are but they quickly come around after trying it once. When Stensurd first heard about the activity, she did not believe anyone would actually hold the birds.
“I thought they were kidding, I really thought she was kidding,” she said. “I think it would be unfortunate if people didn’t at least try it because they’re missing out on a great opportunity.”
Stensurd thought she would have more time to see her family after moving to Colorado but quickly realized they were busy with their own lives. She worried about if the move was the right decision until she started the pet therapy with the birds.
“It was just like God was saying, yes, this is where you need to be, this is where I want you to be,” she said. “It made me start kicking again.”
Once the seniors have enjoyed time holding the birds, Kendall-Gebel invites them to join a dance session with her and the birds.
“I’ve been known to twirl around a little in my dance presentation,” Stensurd said. “It’s just amazing, it is absolutely amazing, it does work.”