Animals IN Nursing Homes

For the last year I’ve been involved with a forward-thinking nursing home director who understands that animals can enhance, engage, and delight the lives of her facility’s residents. Ellen Levinson appreciates what dogs can bring to an institutional setting. She has two of her own that work alongside of her.


But Ellen wanted to go beyond traditional therapy animals that are brought to a bedside, and then are taken away. The nursing home is owned by a large corporation, based in Texas. Somehow Ellen convinced the accountants that bigger, permanent animals were worth paying for. The home is sited on a large piece of property. There is a field. She had it fenced, built a barn, and installed llamas and goats. Then Ellen came to one of my chicken keeping workshops, decided that chickens were essential too, and I was brought on to establish a small flock of hens on the grounds.

Ellen believes that having animals living on the premises gives the residents a sense of control. They get to choose when they see the animals and how to interact with them. Some just look. Some touch. Physical therapy sessions can take place outdoors, on a track around the pasture. There’s a destination for the exercise.

Yesterday a camerawoman and a producer from Chronicle, the Boston ABC station’s long-running human-interest news show, came to Life Care.

They filmed the hens. In this photo you can see an occupational therapist encouraging her patient to stand up to get closer to the chickens.

nursing home coop


It was a beautiful fall day and so the patients were out on the track, viewing the animals, doing physical therapy, and getting fresh air and sunshine.



Llamas are unique creatures and Ellen needed someone who knew how to work with them, so Ellen sent one of her employees to “llama school.” This is the designated handler,

llama handler


but anyone can pet Travis.

llama outside


Not all of the residents can go outside. No problem. Travis comes in.

llama in hallway


Animals bring the unexpected into a place where life is regimented by meal times, therapy sessions and visiting hours. My photographs failed to capture the sheer craziness and joy of the animals in this building.

Not only was Travis plodding on his camel-feet down the carpet, but there was this young dog in training learning to work with his occupational therapy owner:



Along with Ellen’s two goldens,  there was this shaggy fellow spreading happiness:

shaggy dog


I was taking the whole the scene in and looked up to read this banner:

perfect score


There’s a llama and four dogs in the building, and chickens and goats outside, and yet the facility gets a perfect score from the health inspectors. How wonderful is that?

The segment on Chronicle will air mid-November. I’ll let you know when it’s on.

Um, Ellen? I know all about horses :)


  1. What a great story, you are fortunate to be part of a forward thinking care facility….I wish we would have more open-minded people in our small town. We still aren’t able to chickens (although I have 4) because town council shoots us down and won’t change the acreage of property you need to own them. Every town surrounding us are able to have them, just not any roosters. They are so set in their ways they don’t even want to listen. It’s ridiculous to think you need 2 acres for 4-6 hens….Oh well, we need to vote them out and get some new blood in our council.

  2. What a great story…It made me smile…do you think we could coax Pasco the Llama in the house??????

    • Sure! Ellen says that llamas do not like to walk on tiles, so you’ll have to have a carpeted path. The good news is that they do not like to poop inside, but prefer their mound in the paddock.

  3. I have heard about mini horses being used as therapy animals in nursing homes as well. They even wear special non-skid shoes for the tile floors.

  4. Brava to Ellen Levinson whom I met at a book signing in Concord a couple of years ago. She is one of my heroes. It can be done and she did it. I have let my family know that if and when the time comes, Life Care is the place for me.

  5. A piece by David Sedaris put it so beautifully- that when one encounters an animal that is unafraid, one feels an overwhelming and lasting sense of acceptance…

  6. Wow! I hope that someday this will no longer be forward-thinking and will instead be common-place. So wonderful!

  7. I’ll take that shaggy dog.

    Not surprised the facility got a perfect score. It’s not the animals that will make the messes if you know what I mean.

  8. Oh my, I want to live there when that time comes for me. My only improvement would be that they need a cat. How are the three chickens doing?

  9. Wow…takes my breath away. My 94 year old dad currently resides in a wonderful home with lots caring staff and many visiting dogs that come and go, but no llamas or chickens! What a wonderful concept and beautifully done. Bravo to all. Can’t wait to see the show in November.

  10. Wonderful! Travis is gorgeous, as is the little white dog-in-training! I work at a children’s hospital and we have therapy dogs- everyone benefits: patients and staff. Such a great idea.

  11. I remember a post talking about the chickens you helped move there. I liked it because of the idea that it probably brings something familiar to the residents who may have lived on a farm.

    • Yes, isn’t it? :)
      I hope that everyone who likes this story, shares it. The only way that other nursing homes are going to be brave enough to do this is by seeing that it’s possible. Spread the word!

  12. I usually come to visit your cameras as seeing the chickens (especially) makes me feel like I am outside my parents’ home as they have a chicken coop as well.

    It is encouraging to see how the nursing home uses animals for therapy. This is really thinking outside the box! All the best to you as you work with the home.

  13. Well, I don’t know the woman, but I say Ellen Levinson is Awesome. I mean, how many nursing home directors would send an employee to llama school just so her residents could enjoy an *in-house* camelid? Just one, I think. And the whole plan…with the track access to the animals…brilliant.

  14. This is so heartwarming! What a blessing that the people at that facility have access to all these beautiful animals. I’m going to show this article to a couple of the facilities in this are who have large properties…who knows…