Bird watching helps brains soar at Tamarisk


A black and white downy woodpecker glides through the air and perches on a bird feeder during a unseasonably warm morning in early October. It eats for a bit, getting its fill before flying away.

But the woodpecker isn’t alone. Residents at the Phyllis Siperstein Tamarisk Assisted Living Residence pleasantly observe it.

On a daily basis, they also watch blue jays, cardinals, sparrows, robins, mourning doves, American goldfinch and other fowl flutter in the breeze and stop by their backyard garden for a snack.

The experience is a form of therapy called Bird Tales, which partners bird watching with individuals who have cognitive issues, such as memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Sights, sounds, and smells of nature help stimulate their senses.

“It’s a really peaceful setting,” said Betty Smith, Tamarisk’s Renaissance Memory Support Program director. “It’s a way of enhancing their daily routine.”

Bird Tales is part of the facility’s Renaissance Program. It took flight at Tamarisk in the spring, and is proving beneficial.

Smith said many residents often express how much they enjoy it. A few are barely verbal, but they speak or sing along with their feathered friends while bird watching. Other residents say it’s relaxing.

“I think it’s very satisfying,” said Lillian Freeman. “If you’re upset about something, you can go outside and look at the birds. It’s very peaceful.”

Evelyn Brown agrees.

“I think it’s terrific,” said Brown, who often visits the garden before or after shifts. “It just makes you feel good.”

Dr. Eli Shamas, a resident who does not have cognitive issues, feels the same. As a retired psychiatrist, he believes the beautiful garden greatly benefits individuals with dementia.

“If you visit patients who have dementia, you find that the atmosphere is monotonous,” said Shamas. “By having an opportunity to enjoy Mother Nature and the different types of birds with different colors, different sounds and the motion of back and forth, takes them out of their monotony and gives them an opportunity to stimulate their brain cells.”

Audubon Society educator Ken Elkins, along with Randy Griffin, RN, a private consultant who teaches techniques to caregivers of people with dementia, teamed up to create Bird Tales. Tamarisk was the first place in Rhode Island to implement the program.

“They trained our entire staff on how to incorporate bird watching with day-to-day experiences,” Smith said.

Residents are encouraged to use multi-sensory items, such as plush birds. By squeezing the soft bird models, the sound of an authentic bird song unique to its species can be heard, as the mourning dove coos and the downy woodpecker makes pecking sounds.

“We’re giving them something to touch and hear,” Smith said, as she held up various photos of birds for residents to see. “The photos, along with the plush replicas, provide high visual contrast to help residents with deteriorating vision. If they are visually impaired, residents are able to feel the bird’s tail and beak shape, as well as the wings, of each model.”

The program isn’t limited to residents with memory loss. Many others take part, as well.

“It brings more meaning and enjoyment to their experience of nature,” said Smith, noting that staffers incorporate bird watching in other programs, as art instructors ask residents to depict birds they see in the garden.

It’s also not restricted to outdoors. Some residents chose to bird watch inside from windows and doors.

And the cold weather won’t stop them, either. Nor will it deter certain birds, as cardinals and goldfinch don’t migrate. But it changes color. It loses its yellow feathers, replacing them with brown feathers, during winter months.

“Can you imagine this when there’s snow everywhere?” Smith said. “It’s going to be really beautiful. In the winter, we’ll bundle up and take walks on the paths.”

The garden has at least seven feeders and multiple paths lining Tamarisk’s backyard. Richard Del Sesto, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, a nature shop located at 1000 Bald Hill Road, set up the habitat, with residents and staff members providing input.

“He helped us figure out which bird feeders we wanted and where to place them,” Smith said. The initial cost was $600. Tamarisk spends around $35 per month to maintain the feeders.

Del Sesto said the feeding stations were designed not only to take advantage of Tamarisk’s beautiful courtyard, but also to meet objectives, including ease of use, cleanliness and maintenance of area, and to attract a variety of birds. The main feeder, located in the center of the habitat, is a Decorative Advanced Pole System.

“[It] is visually appealing, but also functionally capable of hosting a great number of feeders,” he said.

He said the primary seed used is a Wild Birds Unlimited Blend called No Mess. It consists of three kinds of seed, all of which have been shelled, so there is no waste or remnants.

“I think Tamarisk has been on the cutting edge of embracing the Bird Tales Program,” Del Sesto said. “They have shown an eagerness to offer an activity to their residents that will not only provide entertainment and joy, but also an established health benefit. Obviously we all enjoy the hobby of bird watching and bird feeding and believe strongly in its therapeutic benefits for people of all ages.”

The program also strikes a personal chord for Del Sesto. His father was limited by the effects of dementia for the last years of his life.

“He was living at home and was detached from the present in many ways, but I saw firsthand how the birds and nature allowed him to make a connection,” said Del Sesto, noting that the store donates used bird feeders to various facilities, including assisted living and nursing homes. “It was invaluable for my dad and I believe it just as valuable for the residents at Tamarisk.”

Tamarisk, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, is named after a tree that symbolizes warmth and hospitality. The facility implements various other activities, including concerts, exercise classes, massage therapy, and more. They also have Celebration Day Services, which offers non-residents the opportunity to visit for activities. To learn more, visit

“Everyone who comes into this residence feels embraced by warmth and hospitality,” said Amy Levine of Tamarisk.


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