Hansel and Gretel have become the most popular residents of a retirement community nursing home in Glenarm.
They coo and nuzzle on a branch inside a large coop -- lovebirds that have not only delighted their human companions but, living up to their name, recently hatched two chicks.
The birds at Glen Meadows Retirement Community health care center and others perched in nursing homes around the Baltimore Beltway are the passion and business of Robin Wallace, a Pennsylvania housewife who rents her pets and provides weekly servicing of their custom-made oak and acrylic cages.
Wallace said she has loved birds since childhood when she was delighted each year to receive a live yellow chick in her Easter basket. That affection -- and her collection today of about 150 birds -- led to the unique business she calls Robin's Nest Aviaries.
Nursing homes seemed like a natural place to offer rentals, Wallace thought. Confident that placing birds in a large acrylic cage in hallways would lend cheer to the lives of the elderly, Wallace pitched the idea to nurses and administrators.
And her vision has taken flight.
At Glen Meadows, the residents, some using walkers or wheelchairs, stop by frequently, smiling and talking to the colorful green, gold and orange lovebirds.
"I've even gotten lipstick marks off of the cages," said Wallace, who has birds printed on her personal checks and frequently wears birdie T-shirts. "A nursing home is medicinal and boring. It's so quiet. But when you hear the birds singing in the hallways, it brings the place alive," she said.
"My husband told me that if I wanted any more birds, I would have to go out and find a place to put them," she said, explaining how the idea began to hatch last year. "I started making phone calls and a few brave people told me to come down."
Wallace said she has nearly 90 birds "flying around in nursing homes" in Gettysburg, Pikesville, Frederick and Northern Virginia, with rental contracts that cost $120 a month.
The small birds that arrived at Glen Meadows in October and the chicks they produced seem to be worth far more than their weight in daily miracles.
Residents with Alzheimer's disease break through to remember and flirt with the birds daily. Some stare at the coop and recall younger days when they had beloved birds of their own. Others have adopted the winged family and visit hourly.
Next week, the chicks will be removed and placed in new homes, Wallace said. Soon thereafter, though, Hansel and Gretel will start feathering another nest.
"We have had so much fun with these birds," said Patricia Hiller, director of nursing at Glen Meadows. "It's funny, the residents have taken ownership of the babies. It is something that elderly people need -- to feel that they are caring for others -- and this is perfect.
"The baby birds have been dinner conversation and lunch conversation, and there's a few people here who don't go to bed without first checking on the babies."
For weeks, they patiently watched the nesting box for signs of the two tiny chicks taking flight. Eventually, the babies emerged to the smiles and gasps of the residents and staff.
Among the nursing home's 29 patients is Martha Hauptman, 93, who won the contest to name Hansel and Gretel. She smiles when asked about the lovebirds because they remind her of her once-cherished pet parakeet, "Hansie."
Gwendolyn Lake, 87, says she loves sitting by the cage because the birds' singing "makes me happy."
And then there's "Mr. Lou", an 87-year-old resident who walks past the cage each day, looks at the birds and repeatedly asks nursing director Hiller: "What do you think they taste like? Chicken? I bet they taste like chicken."
"You never know how people will respond to things, but I can say that 99 percent of the residents have fallen in love with them," Hiller said. "Even though they don't touch these birds, they still feel like they are nurturing them. They are as much the parents of the baby birds as Hansel and Gretel."
As for Wallace, the weekly trips from her Fairfield, Pa., home to check on the birds, clean the cages and stock them with vitamin-enriched "bird bread" are like a regular family visit for many residents and staff.
"I like old people and I like what I do," Wallace says. "I'm supposedly making a profit here, but I believe there is a sense that you have to give back and that we should all leave this place better than we found it. It really fills a need."
She then proudly locks the door to the coop and says goodbye to the birds and their friends until next time.
Pub Date: 8/27/96