A bird in the hand is worth a whole lot at Meramec Bluffs, a Lutheran Senior Services Life Plan Community in Ballwin, Missouri. Here, a team of residents create “comfort birds” – small, handcrafted wooden birds to be held and provide comfort.
Deaconess Carla Schmidt, who serves the Meramec Bluffs community, first received a comfort bird long ago. She loves handcrafted art, and the bird has followed her as office décor in each community she has worked.
The birds have several purposes. They are used to help relieve the discomfort when one’s hands close upon themselves, which occurs with some health conditions. They also are simply a nice, tactile object, much like a fidget toy or worry stone.
“Especially people with Parkinson’s, or even just the effects of aging when hands constrict and lose ability to grip, but you don’t want the fingers to close in on themselves. This gives them something to hold,” she said. “It’s also nice to simply have a tactile object to hold.”
The inspiration for creating the comfort birds at Meramec Bluffs came from a resident who loved woodworking. In his younger years he created large pieces of furniture, outfitting much of the furnishings in his home. Due to Parkinson’s, he no longer had the same hand dexterity he once did and could not use woodworking machinery as before.
“I wanted to find a way for him to still have that connection with wood on a smaller scale,” Chaplain Carla said. While brainstorming for a way to help him, she saw her comfort bird. “It clicked that I have these birds. What if we did something he could sand? We could give him texture and let him touch wood again!
Jim Vail, a resident at Meramec Bluffs, member of the We Fix It team, and a woodworker, jumped in to help. “Jim offered to come up with a template for the birds,” she said.
While the resident who inspired the comfort birds has now passed on, many others benefit from this project. “In his last hours I showed him the first template we came up with and told him we were moving the project forward,” she said. “I saw a tear and a partial smile.”
Jim has brought in some members of the We Fix It team to create the birds. Other residents are helping by sanding and varnishing them.
Details matter when it comes to these birds. Like a stress ball, they are designed to conform to the natural shape of a hand. While sanding is important to keep them safe, they are left with a little natural texture. “You don’t want them too smooth because you lose the texture and the tactile experience. You want to feel the curvature of the beak without being poked or cut,” she explained.
The sizes of the birds vary to accommodate different hand sizes. “We want to be sure anyone can have one!”
Jim and Chaplain Carla have even worked to customize birds for residents to ensure they are the right size and fit each person’s grip. “At this point I have finished and passed on 44 birds,” said Jim.
As part of the Pastoral Care that Chaplain Carla provides, she works with other team members to help identify and distribute to those who would find comfort from these special creations.
Chaplain Carla also loves how these birds bear symbolism of the faith-based foundation of Lutheran Senior Services. “The Holy Spirit is often illustrated as a dove. While these are not necessarily doves, they are a means of spreading that sense of peace and comfort.”