Seniors find pet therapy isnt strictly for the birds

The Home for Jewish Parents recently welcomed a group of new residents who sing all day, flutter around in bright garb and lead lives full of drama.

No, it's not the cast of "The Golden Girls." In fact, the 16 new residents are doves, finches and quails. The new birds nest, trill and feed in a bright aviary just inside the home's front doors.

"It's like a little soap opera in there," says Beth Mostovoy, activity director at the Jewish residential facility in Oakland.

While watching "All My Children" all day isn't generally recommended for keeping senior citizens vital, Mostovoy says watching the birds has a distinctly therapeutic ef-fect on the residents, promoting a sense of well-being and even encouraging increased social interaction between the seniors.

"It's kind of soothing, watching the interplay that goes on between the birds. [A resident's] whole being just lights up, becomes animated. When they see the birds, they just get lost in it," Mostovoy says.

"It takes them out of thinking, `My back hurts, why didn't my son call today?' Aches and pains go away."

What's more, she says, animals don't apply negative stereotypes to the elderly as other humans often do.

"Even if someone had a stroke, or can't see so well, the animal doesn't care. It just loves them unconditionally," Mostovoy says.

Ethel Wyle, 78, says she and other residents of the home will stop and watch the birds for half an hour at a time — several times throughout the day.

"You can stand there for hours and watch those birdies. We have a bright yellow one, and two little fellows that hop around on the floor of the aviary. All the birds are in pairs. They stick together like twins," says Wyle, who also describes the birds' music as "clear and beautiful tunes."

The birds, paid for with funds from the annual Solid Gold Ball held by the home's board, have also encouraged friends and family to stay for longer visits at the home, say staff members.

And for at least one resident, the new pets have proven to be an artistic muse.

Recently, when two baby birds died in the aviary, resident Bess Meek was inspired to write an ode to the feathery creatures. In the poem's opening stanza, she describes her personal connection to the birds who still flutter and thrive in their glass aviary:

"We who continue to live will warble, chirp, trill, sing/for the joy of living and the freedom it affords."