CODY, WY — Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the world seemed to change as we know it and regulations tightened for safety, some of our community’s most vulnerable have probably made some of the biggest sacrifices.
But a new tool at Cody Regional Health’s long-term care center is changing how residents interact with something called a hugging booth.
“You don't know how long it's been,” said Cody resident Chuck Morton.
Morton has been able to see his wife off and on through windows and such while she’s been living in the long-term care center for about a year.
However, the two haven’t shared an embrace since the pandemic began months ago.
“This is her first year here. And of course, we got through the holidays without her. It was hard,” said Morton. “All of a sudden, I am by myself.“
The couple has been married for 54 years but were separated because Lee now suffers from dementia. “All of a sudden, you're missing a partner when we did everything together,” Morton said.
But a recent interaction with Lee was much different than the many he’s had before. “Very, very emotional,” he said.
That’s because Chuck was able to touch and hug Lee for the very first time. However, the experience was a bit modified.
Last Tuesday, those with Cody Regional Health held a first for the long-term care facility – residents were able to schedule visits with their loved ones and sit on opposite sides of a plastic wall with armholes allowing for a hug.
Annalea Avery, the Foundation Experience Director for Cody Regional Health who spawned the idea of the hugging booth, watched as her plan was put into use for the very first time.
“I've been down here just crying all day because it's just so special to see them be able to touch their families hold, their hands,” said Avery.
She says the entire idea came to her because of her own experience visiting a loved one.
“So this all stems from my grandma's 93rd birthday. She's in Ohio and that's a significant distance, so I drove five days in a car. It was with my three children to visit with my grandmother through glass, and it was exciting to see her smile, but so hard not to touch her,” said Avery. “So that's where this kind of came from. “
She says she did some research on hugging booths and then collected materials with the help of her father’s local construction company.
Then she manufactured a prototype. “And then my husband and I kind of built this in our living room with our kids running around,” she said.
Tuesday was one of her greatest delights when she saw the hugging booth come together and families embrace for the first time in months.
“You know it gives them something that they haven't had back in a long time. And to see that happen just melts your heart. It's just wonderful,” Avery said.
Cody Regional Health put restrictions in place in March, according to CEO Doug McMillan. It was all in an effort to keep their residents safe. It's worked because the facility has had no positive cases of COVID-19 since.
“Our residents that have been in since the pandemic, which are many, have not been able to touch or hold, embrace their loved one since then,” said McMillan.
He says the idea of the hugging booth blew away staff because it's such a simple concept but with a great impact.
“It just was near and dear to our hearts because we know what that's like to miss someone and have them in long-term care and not be able to touch them,” said Avery.
Studies show that touch can send the body signals of safety and trust. It soothes our hearts, calming cardiovascular stress.
For Chuck Morton, a simple embrace from his wife was a bit simpler than even all that. “It's very emotional,” he said. “And I'm not an emotional guy, but it was a long time.”
Avery says the hugging booth was not possible without all the support from the hospital and the foundation. She says it was a foundation grant that helped build the hugging booth.
She plans to modify the materials of the booth, but for now, it's safe and sanitary as can be.