sunset manor isabelle and delores

Isabelle Merrill holds Rachel the lamb to Delores Speh.

The therapeutic value of animals for nursing home residents is well-documented. Having animals visit nursing homes has become quite common. Yet Jessica Merrill, activities director at Avera Sunrise Manor in Tyler, Minn. has taken that idea to a new level.

Merrill and her husband, Brandon, live on a 10-acre farm site just outside of Tyler. They wanted animals. Their only experience with farming is Brandon’s visits to his grandfather’s farm when he was young. In addition to their love of animals, they had a three-year-old and figured — correctly — it would be a great life for him.

“We started getting animals to see what we would like,” Merrill said. “We did a lot of reading, viewing on You Tube, and talking with local farmers.”

Merrill knew she wanted alpacas so she could learn to spin wool. They purchased reproducing pairs of goats, lambs, rabbits, peacocks and other fowl; but not every animal was purchased. When people heard about the farm, they were dropping off chickens after the Tyler City Code disallowed keeping chickens in town.

“We would come home and there would be new chickens in our yard with a bag of feed and no note,” Merrill said.

She told of a woman who was moving up north and needed a home for her two pigs. The woman had sold one, only to have the people come out and butcher it. She gave the Merrills the other one with the promise they allow it to have at least one litter of pigs.

By a recent count they had 89 critters: Nigerian dwarf goats, Babydoll sheep, Yorkshire pigs, holstein/angus cows, New Zealand rabbits, along with alpacas, peacocks, chickens, ducks and geese. They were also gifted with a barn cat.

After some volunteer work at the nursing home and getting her certification, she was hired as activities director in July of 2020. She began to bring some of their baby animals for residents to pet and hold — lambs, bunnies, pigs, goats. The nursing home also has an enclosed courtyard where residents can sit outside and watch the animals roam.

Merrill was quick to discover that some of the best animal advice she could get came from the residents. That was not just the men who farmed or grew up doing chores on a farm.

“I have so many widows who were housewives on farms, helping out, side-by-side with their husbands,” she said. “They have a wealth of knowledge.”

The Merrills castrated their first litter of pigs by following the advice of the residents.

Jessica sees the therapeutic value, such as the resident who was having a rough day that was made smoother by spending an hour-and-a-half with a little pig he loved. It goes beyond that, though, to their having an outside interest that perks up their lives. The residents feel a part of raising the animals.

“The residents know who is pregnant and what’s going on at the farm at all times,” Merrill said. “We talk about it during announcements before lunch. A lot of them keep very, very involved.”

This involvement helps them to be alert to the world outside of the nursing home. There is life beyond their room and the dining room.

“It gives them something to think about, something to look forward to, something to talk about with their family,” she said. “It gives them something exciting to talk about.” And talk they do. She runs into family members who ask her how animals are doing.

This involvement is more than visits from animals. Sunrise Manor has a cart pulled by a donated UTV that is used for rides around town in pleasant weather. With permission from the home and the families, the residents are able to visit the farm. The farm has a U-shaped driveway, and her husband has it set up for animals to be along the drive. Since passengers sit facing the center, Merrill drives through one way, then turns around and goes back so everyone has a chance to see.

She parks in the shade of large black walnut trees. The residents can feed ducks and geese and hold some animals. Brandon has built a low “table” for feed; and when the animals are called, they respond and eat around the table, giving residents a close-up view without leaving the cart.

On one visit, Merrill had chased Alfie, a friendly bottle-fed goat, off the cart a couple of times during the visit. He jumped on again when she wasn’t looking and hid behind a wheelchair. All the folks knew it, but kept it as their joke. She didn’t find out until they got back to the nursing home and the goat jumped off in the parking lot. We’re never too old for a little mischief.

“We get out to the farm twice a week when the weather is nice,” she said. “They love it.” It takes three trips each day to accommodate everyone who wants to go. (The trip includes a stop downtown for ice cream.)

Merrill said that the only thing better than animals for residents is children, so Merrill plans events to draw families.

“We had a kids carnival in July and I brought baby alpacas. The residents are outside with the families. At Easter we had bunnies and lambs.”

While the stories Merrill could tell are endless, one heartwarming experience happened this past fall. A 107-year-old resident who had always been alert had been placed on hospice. She had reached the point of being lethargic and not her usual responsive self — sleeping mostly. One of the last good days to get outside, Merrill leaned over to her ear and asked if she wanted to go to the farm. She said, “Sure,” and sat up. Her surprised daughter and son-in-law were present and rode along. She was holding the pigs and bunnies and had a great day.

“It was her last ‘awake’ day,” Merrill said. “After that she didn’t get out of bed, and died a few days later.”

Jessica Merrill said the hardest part of bringing in the baby animals is that residents holding them don’t want to give them up. The way Merrill has involved the residents, they probably feel like these are their animals, too. That’s fine with Merrill. When they get their first calves, she’ll be looking for all the advice they can give.   

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