Retirement and long-term care homes have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic this year, but residents at one Ontario home experienced a little extra joy this summer releasing monarch butterflies in their courtyard.
Anne MacLean James is a former activation aide at Golden Dawn Senior Citizen Home in Lions Head, Ont., who returned in March after being retired and volunteering for 10 years to help with one-on-one visits and activities during the pandemic.
She’s affectionately known by residents as the “monarch lady” because she’s been bringing butterfly enclosures to the home for the past three years.
MacLean James started raising monarch butterflies about 25 years ago, inspired by her husband’s cousin who used to raise so many monarchs that chrysalises hung from door frames at her cottage. When she passed away, MacLean James decided to look after the milkweed garden she’d started at their church.
She continued raising monarchs on her own, eventually using enclosures her husband made and bringing them to display in the lobby of Golden Dawn and releasing the butterflies outside in the courtyard — much to the excitement of residents.
“They love it, because it’s something they remember from their youth,” MacLean James told HuffPost Canada. “Back in their days, there were a lot more monarchs than there are today.”
In past years, MacLean James would walk with residents around the home’s extra lot to find caterpillars and caterpillar eggs. This year, she and the residents looked in the courtyard garden. When the eggs hatch, she puts the caterpillars into a small enclosure she calls the “hospital” until they’re about five days old, at which point she moves them to a larger enclosure.
“Everyone helps keep an eye on them, and we go out and get milkweed for them,” she said.
In the two years before the pandemic, MacLean James left enclosures at the home so residents could see the chrysalises and all of the stages of the butterflies’ life cycle.
This year, in accordance with pandemic safety measures, she only brought the enclosures on days she worked, instead of leaving them there all the time which would have meant she would have to be screened multiple times a day when she visited to clean or check on the enclosures.
“But I made a point of releasing far more [at the home] this year, because there’s so much [residents] can’t do right now,” she said.
On one occasion last year after releasing the monarchs, one landed on a resident and wouldn’t leave. MacLean James told her it was almost time for her to go to bed, and asked what she’d do if the butterfly didn’t fly away. The woman was willing to sleep in the courtyard so the monarch could stay.
“She said, ‘Bring me a blanket,’” MacLean James recalled, laughing.
Residents often recall raising monarchs in jars in school as children, she said. “It’s a memory they didn’t know they had until they see [the butterflies].”
“It’s a special thing, releasing them with them,” MacLean James said. “At this stage in their life, to me, a monarch is sort of our life story; how we think we’re dead and then look what happens to us. So it’s sort of a story of hope, I always think — there’s more to life than what’s here.”
Sandy Taylor, a resident at the home, told HuffPost on a video call that the monarchs often fly away after being released, “glad to be free” after emerging from their chrysalis. But some come back to see the chrysalis, she said, adding their wings unfold “unbelievably.”
“I had one that sat on my arm and didn’t want to go,” Taylor, who is 86, said. “And finally Anne came over and put him on her arm, he sat there for quite a while, too. So he liked us, just as much as we liked him.”
“I think that we were privileged to be able to see them. No matter how old you are, you know when beauty is around,” she said.
Shirley McFarlane, another resident at Golden Dawn, said her favourite thing is looking at the monarch’s faces. “They look cute,” the 84-year-old said.
“I saw lots of butterflies but didn’t really get interested in them when I was younger. And then when I [came] here, I really did get interested in them,” she said.
Clarice Garrod, a 92-year-old resident, remembers sitting with a monarch that stayed on her hat for about 20 minutes. “And then it came down and looked into my eye, I think it was.”
“I loved it. I didn’t move,” she said. “I never ever thought I would [enjoy it], but I did.”
“I just loved every minute of it,” Garrod said.
MacLean James said it was hard for all of the residents to be away from their families during the pandemic. “The monarchs were a lighter spot,” she said.
Families are also “thrilled” to see residents taking part in releasing the butterflies, MacLean James said. One family member told her toward the end of her mom’s life, it was hard to talk to her — but she was always excited to hear about the monarchs and wanted to take her family out into the lobby to see the caterpillars in the enclosures. The resident has now passed away, but her family is raising monarchs on their own with an enclosure MacLean James gave them.
This year, MacLean James raised 856 monarchs and released over 200 at the retirement home. She also tagged 200 monarchs this year with tags from Monarch Watch, a program based at the University of Kansas. Those tags help researchers find out details of a monarch’s migration, like where it came from and how long it took to get to Mexico.
Tagging the monarchs means she’ll be notified if one of her butterflies successfully makes the migration — as one of hers did last year. In 2019, she raised 1,400 monarchs but felt it was too many. Even the number she raised this year “was almost a full-time job,” she said.
For two years, she had a float in the town parade where she released monarchs with residents. She also brings the enclosures and butterflies to another nearby home and gives presentations about raising them.
“I’m happy to say there are many of us up here that are raising them, because of my husband’s cousin and then myself.”
Now that MacLean James has released her last monarchs of the year, she feels “empty nest syndrome.” But she had a special moment releasing the very last butterfly in September — it flew into a tree at the home that she’d planted in her dad’s name after he died, while her mom was a resident at the home.
“It was very, very emotional when that happened because it just left that one resident and went up into the tree,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Ooh, that’s strong.’”