Nursing Home Nannies

Goats bring joy to the residents of a long-term care facility

Nursing Home Nannies

Reading Time: 4 minutes

by Jodi Helmer 

In 2015, Angie Whitman was raising seven goats at her home in Knox County, Illinois, when she had the idea to take them to the Knox County Nursing Home where she worked.  

“We got the goats because my son wanted them but as he got older, he didn’t really pay any attention to them anymore,” Whitman recalls. “I was walking around outside the nursing home with a coworker and saw that there was a little fenced-in area with a small barn [where the facility used to keep a few goats to entertain the residents] and I thought it would be the perfect place to bring them.” 

The herd of mixed-breed goats moved into the nursing home in 2016 and fast became the most popular kids on the block. For safety reasons, the residents cannot be in the pasture with the goats but that hasn’t stopped them from actively helping to care for the herd. Residents help scoop grain into buckets, offer crackers, Cheerios, and other treats over the fence and keep a watchful eye while they play in the pasture. When sisters Sassy and Oreo were born last year, residents even held a contest to name the kids.  

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Even when the goats are out of sight, they are still a hot topic of conversation. 

“We’ll hear the residents talking to each other, saying things like, ‘Did you see what those goats did today,’” says Tammie Leaf, activities director for the Knox County Nursing Home. “Most of our residents were raised on farms and the goats bring back a lot of memories.”  

Leaf enjoys watching the residents interact with the goats and appreciates the profound impact those interactions can have on their wellbeing. One resident who rarely interacted with others or joined activities, preferring to spend most of his time alone, loved spending time with Sassy and Oreo.  

“He’d tell the nurses, ‘You tell Tammie I want to see those babies,’” Leaf recalls. “It made him smile and gave him something to look forward to toward the end of his life.” 

Leaf would dress the doelings up in silly outfits (complete with hats) and take them to visit the resident in his room. The goats happily curled up beside him in bed while he showered them with affection. After the resident passed away, his family donated a large rock for the goats to climb on; a plaque affixed to the rock bears the name of the resident and Sassy and Oreo.  

For all of the joy the goats bring to the Knox County Nursing Home, having goats living on nursing home grounds has presented some challenges. 

One resident would tell the nurses, “You tell Tammie I want to see those babies.” It made him smile and gave him something to look forward to toward the end of his life.

Tammie Leaf

A fainting goat named Buttons banged her head against the fence and bullied the other goats out of food, upsetting the residents. Whitman took her home. Last year, two kids repeatedly escaped the fence and turned the garden (planted by a group of local volunteers) into a buffet. 

“The babies would get out and eat some of the flowers and it was happening every day,” Whitman says. “We’d have people coming to the front desk to tell us, ‘Your goats are out!’ and they would be so upset about it. The goats didn’t go far and as soon as we went to catch them, they ran back in to be with mom but we had to bring in a snow fence to keep them from escaping.” 

After several of the does kidded (and residents pitched in to help with bottle feeding), the original herd of seven goats almost doubled. Maintaining a herd of 13 goats while caring for elderly residents proved to be too much for staff. Whitman sold several goats and moved a few back to her house; the nursing home shrunk its onsite herd to four goats: Thelma and Louise, Sassy and Oreo. 

But fewer goats did not mean less entertainment for guests. Residents still gather outside to interact with the (now smaller) herd of goats and visiting families love to go to the pasture to feed the goats and watch the caprine residents exploring their surroundings.  

“I think the residents and visitors just really like being outside and like watching the goats jump and play,” Whitman says. “When there are babies out there, it’s like watching one of those adorable YouTube videos of jumping kids come to life.” 

The goats live at the nursing home from April to October and spend the winters back on Whitman’s farm. During the warmer months, Leaf appreciates that the goats keep the residents active and provide opportunities for them to socialize with each other and get some fresh air, adding, “Many of the residents take daily walks just to see the goats. All we hear all winter is, ‘When are the goats coming back?’ Having them out there keeps them mobile and that is good for their quality of life. We’re very lucky to have them here.” 

Originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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