Carol Cherry dropped by the Cody Regional Health Long Term Care Center last week to visit her friend, Helen Hurich.
“I’m emotional,” Cherry said, almost apologizing. “I haven’t seen Helen [Hurich] since March.”
Hurich was good friends with Cherry’s mother, who passed away, and Cherry and Hurich have remained friends since.
Cherry’s visit on Thursday made the day even more special than it already was for Hurich: She was celebrating her 103rd birthday.
“From covered wagons to landing on the moon, she’s seen it all,” said Brian Huso, administrator for the center.
Not only were the two Cody friends able to see each other, an innovative idea allowed the women to hold hands — something visitors haven’t been able to do at the center for months due to the COVID pandemic.
They’re calling it a hugging booth. It’s a plastic partition hung inside a wooden frame. It works like glove boxes used in laboratories, where scientists can reach inside a sealed container through gloves mounted on the side.
The plastic partition in the hugging booth has holes that visitors can put their hands through, allowing them to hug and touch their loved ones on the other side. One set of arm holes are low, for those like Hurich, who can’t stand up, and another is higher for those who want to stand and hug.
The idea for the booth began when Annalea Avery, director of the Cody Regional Health Foundation, drove to Ohio in October for a surprise visit with her grandmother, Laura Hickey. Hickey lives in a nursing home, and it was her 93rd birthday. As happy as Hickey was to see her granddaughter, they could only see each other through glass.
“It was just emotionally hard,” Avery said, “because you never know when you’re going to see your loved one again.”
Throughout the COVID pandemic, long term care facilities across the world have had to greatly restrict visitation in order to keep their residents safe, as they are in the demographic most likely to die from the disease. These facilities have used all kinds of methods to maintain safety during visitations.
The Cody care center has been holding outdoor visits whenever the weather permits, but Huso said it can be challenging. Personnel have to coordinate staff, as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) requires a staff member to be present. Residents have to keep distance from their loved ones, and it becomes very difficult for the residents to hear — especially if they’re hard of hearing — when their visitor is talking through a mask several feet away. That problem was addressed somewhat with a PA system.
When the weather doesn’t permit outdoor visits, residents have been able to see visitors in a vestibule, separated by glass, and they talk to each other through cellphones. The care center also uses a variety of online options, such as Zoom and FaceTime.
Of course, none of these solutions permit any touching, which is such a vital part of communication between the residents and their loved ones.
After her touchless visit with her grandmother, Avery wondered if there wasn’t a better way. She researched some options other facilities have been using to allow contact. She came across a solution — something like the hugging booth — that was being used at a hospital in Brazil.
Avery discussed the idea with Huso, and he thought it could work for the residents while still adhering to the safety protocols required by CMS. With Huso’s support, Avery approached the Cody Regional Health Foundation board to see if they’d fund the idea.
“They were totally on board and thought this was a great way to give back to the community,” Avery said.
She then contacted her father, Mike Bromley, owner of Bromley Construction and Log Homes, to see if he could help install it in the care center’s visitation area.
“He got on board, and it became a family project,” Avery said. The company ended up donating time and materials to make it happen.
It was a bit tricky, because they had to make the booth fit in the available space without doing any permanent alterations to the care center building. (Eventually, as the vaccine rolls out and COVID goes the way of polio and smallpox, the hugging booth will be removed.) They built a wood frame and used shower curtains from Walmart to create the plastic separator.
“It’s very thin material, because you want to have that healing touch,” Avery said.
The Cody care center follows the Planetree philosophy of care, which is an organization providing consulting and certification in a person-centered care approach.
“We focus on person-centered care, and there’s some components of Planetree, such as healing touch,” Avery explained. “We wanted to make sure it [the hugging booth] had that real feel and you could still feel connected.”
The hugging booth is only a couple weeks old, and they’re still working out the kinks. Avery is going to try a different type of plastic that is more transparent so people can see each other better. They are also going to make it looser at the bottom. This way, when someone in a wheelchair presses up close against the plastic, the footrests don’t tear it.
Even with these imperfections, Avery and Huso said the hugging booth has been a smashing success and offered the residents a much more fulfilling visitation experience.
“I’m so glad to give that back to someone else,” Avery said. “I have two grandmothers in facilities that have a lot of restrictions. I know our team here is just happy to offer something, and our foundation was proud to support this project.”
Huso said one of the first residents to use the hugging booth was a woman with dementia. She and her husband had done everything together throughout their lives, but with her declining health, he needed to put her in the care center.
“He would come every day,” Huso said.
They haven’t been able to touch each other since the pandemic began. When they touched through the plastic of the hugging booth, Huso said, it was a very emotional reunion.
Another visitor got to touch her mother for the first time in months.
“They were both in tears,” Huso said.
Between visits, the plastic is disinfected. Huso said they can accommodate several visits per day, even with the time for disinfecting. With about 70 residents at the care center, just about every resident can get a couple visits every month at the hugging booth. It’s an incredible boost to the emotional well being of their residents, Huso said.
Huso remarked what a character Hurich can be. As she was rolled into the visitation area for her visit with Cherry, he leaned down close so Hurich could hear when he wished her a happy birthday.
“You’re 103 today,” he told her.
“I know. Isn’t that awful?” Hurich joked.
“Oh, my. You need a haircut,” Cherry commented to Hurich through the plastic as the two friends held each other’s hands. “It’s longer than I’ve seen it in a long time.”
They were all smiles as they talked about the sermons given by the pastor at their church — the same one Cherry’s mother attended when she was alive. They also discussed politics, and a care center staffer read a letter to Hurich as Cherry listened.
“Even through plastic, to be able to put their arms around each other or hold their hand — nothing else replaces it,” Huso said.