Lillian the Therapy Turkey
Humans need to connect with other living beings. Fulfilling this need is strongly tied to health and happiness. Connection and social interaction far exceed wealth and success as measures of happiness according to numerous studies.
Conversely, chronic illness and even early mortality are strongly linked to loneliness. Even homelessness in the long run is found to be more about a lack of people than a lack of money. Connectivity is the main purpose of senior and community centers.
Pet therapy, among other things, is also about connection. Hospital patients experience measurable benefits from spending time petting a therapy dog, for instance. Connecting with animals helps people take a mental break from their problems and enjoy companionship in the here and now. The concept is simple, but no less powerful. The other side of connecting is that it also feels good to take care of another living being, and play a role in their well-being.
Dogs are usually a perfect “go-to” animal for pet therapy, but not necessarily an option for everyone. In the movie "The Shawshank Redemption," for example, imprisoned character Brooks befriended and cared for his pet crow. If you saw the movie you would understand that his relationship with the crow was quite significant to his overall well-being.
Although not a crow, an equally unlikely quasi-therapy animal has been adopted by the Westlake senior and community services department. A wild turkey took up residence on our grounds in late November, ironically, the day before Thanksgiving. She doesn’t travel with other turkeys. She’s a loner. Day in and day out, she rounds our building, peering into all the office and activity room windows.
Staff and patrons alike couldn’t help noticing this new “feathered” friend who was frequenting our center. At first we thought we had a peeping “tom” (pun-intended) and named her Roger, but after a little research we realized that he was a she, and her name changed to Lillian.
As Lillian peeks in she clearly makes eye contact with whomever she sees. She prefers to hang around rooms that are most populated. This means that when we have an event in our largest gathering space on the second floor, she walks up the ramp to hang out on the balcony of that room, peering in and connecting.
Our patrons and staff alike feel a bond to Lillian. If she hasn’t been sighted yet that day, there is worry expressed. It’s common to hear, “Has anyone seen Lillian today? I hope she’s OK.” When she does make her appearance, she induces a wave of happiness and smiles.
It is a regular occurrence now during our programs and activities that a patron will happily announce “Lillian is here!” The mood of the room is down-right celebratory. People enjoy seeing her, and want to take care of her.
Who would ever guess that a turkey could evoke such reactions? I certainly would not have, but her daily presence and eye contact was all that was needed to forge this emotional connection. She brings a smile to my face every time I see her. I am not alone. Apparently, now, neither is Lillian! Although she prefers to be alone, she too likes to “socialize” on her own terms. Her presence exemplifies the power of connection.
Lydia Gadd is the director of the Westlake Senior & Community Services Center located at 29694 Center Ridge Road. A wide variety of health & wellness, social, educational and enrichment opportunities are offered Monday through Friday from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Go to www.cityofwestlake.org/community-services to find a calendar of activities, or drop by for a tour. You will very likely see Lillian if you do.
I am the Director of the Senior and Community Services Department for the City of Westlake. I am also a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor.