Minidonks is a social enterprise that’s creating some delightful moments.
‘I’d never heard of mini donkeys until eight or nine years ago,’ says Sarah McPherson. ‘I went out looking for a pet dog and came home with two donkeys!’
Sarah now runs Miniature Donkeys for Wellbeing, known as Minidonks. It’s a South Norfolk social enterprise that takes miniature donkeys – about 91cm at the shoulder – to community groups and other settings across the east of England.
This includes care homes whose residents have dementia, and the idea is to boost people’s wellbeing.
‘There’s just something really gentle in a donkey’s nature,’ says Sarah, whose parents both had dementia. ‘A lot of the impact is in the moment. We get the little glimpses of pure joy and happiness.’
‘I split my time between home in Norfolk and my parents in Leicester, trying to arrange homecare,’ says Sarah. ‘It was a very difficult time. I’d come home, sit in the stable with the donkeys and howl, scream and cry.’
Sarah noticed that her mum particularly enjoyed spending time with the donkeys.
‘It reminded her of being evacuated during the war,’ she says. ‘I always used to feel that I got a bit of my mum back when she was with the donkeys. It was really precious.’
When her mum moved into a care home, Sarah was allowed to take the donkeys to visit, which provided the inspiration for Minidonks.
‘Mum died in 2017, and I got drunk at her wake and told people I was going to hand in my notice at work and start taking the donkeys into care homes, and that’s exactly what I did,’ she says.
Sarah is supported on visits by the ‘best group’ of highly valued volunteers, who facilitate interaction and activities suited to different residents, a lot of whom are from rural backgrounds.
‘We might go for a walk around the grounds with a donkey, or people might have a go at grooming them,’ she says.
‘We’ll knock on someone’s door and the delight on their faces! People open their arms to invite the donkeys in.’
Care home staff often tell Sarah that residents who don’t usually join in with activities will come out and be part of the donkeys’ visits.
‘One man with dementia spent most of his day walking around, shuffling, with his hands curled up, but when he was stroking the donkey he started whistling and grooming it like a professional. He must have been a former jockey or horseman,’ says Sarah.
‘The staff had never seen him so animated. In that moment he was back doing something familiar and comfortable.’
Because of the pandemic, Sarah and her team were unable to visit any care homes for 15 months. They did try some socially distanced visits when allowed, but these weren’t very successful. Thankfully, outdoor visits resumed in May and some homes have now welcomed indoor visits as well.
‘We’re fighting fit and loving being back,’ says Sarah, who recently visited a dementia specialist care home.
‘One lady was absolutely entranced with the donkeys and told us all about the horses she used to keep. We had a long chat about the care and feeding of donkeys and how they differ to horses.
‘She thanked me for bringing the donkeys to see her and said, “It has been so nice to be able to talk horse to someone. Your donkeys are so beautifully kept that I know you know what you are doing. It has been so good to touch and smell a donkey after all these years.”’
Smile and laugh
Minidonks recently visited Chilton Court and Woodfield Court, care homes in Stowmarket, where Sandra Goswell is Activities Co-ordinator.
‘The visits provide great variety to our existing activities programme,’ she says. ‘Our residents aren’t able, or don’t have the opportunity, to go out and see animals like this, so for Minidonks to bring them in is amazing. The volunteers are wonderful and understand the issues that our residents have.
‘The residents are amazed that the donkeys can come inside to see them, and 99% of those with dementia adore them! They chat to them and tell them how beautiful they are.
‘They are suddenly able to articulate their feelings, which they can’t normally achieve. After each visit the buzz lasts for days!
‘One lady with advanced dementia, who rarely smiles, had the best time with one of the donkeys, who made her smile and laugh.’
Sarah would love to see other people set up similar operations elsewhere in the UK and would be happy to share her expertise and support.
‘The more equine therapy the better!’ she says.
‘What we do is magic. I can’t imagine doing anything else with the rest of my life.’
If you or someone you know are worried about or affected by dementia, we are here for you. Get advice on a range of topics and find support near you.