HEBER CITY -- As residents of Rocky Mountain Care-Heber eat their lunch family style, nurses and aides take turns herding Nikki, a white Samoyed, out of the dining area.
As nursing director LeeAnn Brunson makes rounds in the 46-bed skilled care facility, a cockateil named Rocky rides along on her shoulder.
As a physician visits patients in the commons, he wades through a room filled with third-graders, a couple of dogs and forest of potted plants. All the while, music emanates from a piano.
If it appears there's scarcely a dull moment here, it's by design. Rocky Mountain Care-Heber is among the first nursing homes in Utah to embrace the "Eden Alternative."
The "Eden Alternative" transforms sterile nursing home environments into "lush, lively human habitats," according to Dr. William H. Thomas, a
New York physician in family practice and geriatrics who is considered the father of the movement.
The philosophy aims to purge nursing homes of loneliness, helplessness and boredom by infusing life and involvement. It's making nursing homes as "homelike" as possible. It's giving residents a chance to give back. It's developing policies and practices that foremost serve the needs of residents. It's creating an environment that encourages spontaneity.
For 89-year-old Edna Park, it means sharing her room with a lovebird named Peachy.
"He's no bother, the sweet little thing. He's the first one to wake up in the morning," Park said.
They've been companions since Halloween, when students from J.R. Smith Elementary School gave residents birds and cages as presents. The students frequent the nursing home to help care for the dogs and birds and visit the residents. On Halloween, the residents treated the children to candy.
Park and Peachy share a bond. "He knows his name. He knows my voice. He'll sit up and talk to me where he won't listen to anyone else," said Park.
"I think he's somebody, all right. To me, he's a little person."
Not all of the residents have pets, but Brunson said she believes all benefit from the nursing home's charged atmosphere.
For one thing, it's never boring. Few residents have to be coaxed from their rooms into the commons area because most go there on their own.
If Brunson has learned anything in the five months since the nursing home launched the Eden Alternative, it's to expect the unexpected.
Like the day a resident with Alzheimer's disease opened every bird cage.
"We had 13 little birds all over the place," Brunson said, laughing.
Catching the birds was a chore for the staff, but residents got a good laugh. "It's just diversions like that, spontaneity that just doesn't ordinarily happen in nursing homes," Brunson said.
Cats once inhabited the center, but they were removed when they proved to be troublesome. Some would bat their paws at residents' walkers and canes.
Nikki the Samoyed once strolled around the center carrying a resident's bird in his mouth. The bird was unharmed, however.
A sign on the front door of the facility cautions visitors not to let the dogs out. It likely was posted after Nikki strolled off campus.
He returned to the care center in a police car.
The Eden Alternative was instituted by former nursing home administrator Heather Zigliara and the center's new director plans to build upon its successes. A sister facility, Rocky Mountain Care-Bountiful, also employs the philosophy.
With time, Heber administrator Claire Arce would like to specifically match residents to pets. She fancies establishing a child-care center within the nursing home.
"I envision a 'grandpa or grandma reading to the kids' kind of arrangement," she said. "People need to realize they can still give back."
Arce said she believes the nursing home residents teach the schoolchildren valuable life lessons, albeit in a highly informal fashion.
"The kids who come here form bonds with the residents themselves. That's important so they learn not to be afraid of people with disabilities and to understand the life process," she said.
The animals have helped break down the children's apprehension about coming to the nursing home, Brunson said. "When we got the animals, the kids liked to be here."
Although the staff has done no formal study, anecdotal evidence suggests that the animals appear to calm residents who have dementia. Others are using less pain medication, Brunson said.
Residents who previously appeared disconnected tune in to their surroundings when a dog plops his head in their laps.
"A lot of our residents had little dogs or cats before they came here. If you give them an animal they brighten up. These are people who didn't pay attention to anything. Their arms go up and they hold the animal," said Su Merrill, quality of life coordinator.
"Then, they smile. It's so neat."