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Families push for 'hugging booth' to help with seniors coronavirus social isolation

Maine senior advocates say the extended coronavirus isolation in nursing homes is creating a mental health crisis.

Thirteen of the twenty COVID-19 related deaths reported by the Maine CDC Tuesday were residents who lived in long term care facilities.

These facilities are operating under strict guidelines to protect medically fragile seniors from the virus.

But advocates say the extended isolation is creating a mental health crisis and is pushing the pandemic's death toll higher. That's why one family is lobbying for a creative way to allow hugs for the first time in months.

Sarah Joakim travels weekly from Massachusetts to see her father Dick Dow. He lives at Pinnacle Health & Rehab, a long term care facility in South Portland and this visit marks an important milestone. Separated by a glass window, Sarah, her two-year-old daughter Sophie and mom Christine rely on a cell phone to celebrate her father's 91st birthday.

Sarah hasn't been able to hug her Dad in more than 9 months because of guidelines to protect elderly residents from getting COVID-19. Nursing homes and other facilities for seniors in Maine have been hit hard during the pandemic because the virus is so deadly among that population. 

The facility does allow outdoor visits, in-person visits six feet apart with plexiglass, and proper PPE and facetime calls throughout the week. 

Dick, who retired as a Colonel in the Army National Guard, has dementia. Despite getting excellent care, Sarah worries about the toll the isolation is having on her dad. 

'He is 91 and you don't know....what tomorrow will bring,' Sarah said.

Earlier this fall, Sara saw this video of a specially designed 'hugging booth' that is being used to allow elderly residents and family members wearing proper PPE to have physical contact. 

After talking to a nursing home in Massachusetts that's using a hugging booth outside, Sarah and her husband had one built featuring a plastic curtain attached to a wood frame.

Mary Altenbern's husband Charlie also lives at Pinnacle and suffers from Alzheimer's.  She feels the hugging booth would take the edge off the loneliness for both of them.

'To put my arms around my husband would be everything, everything, to hold him and touch him and to be close to him again,' Mary said.

Jeff Ketchum, the administrator at Pinnacle tells NEWS CENTER Maine the hugging booth is not allowed because of strict COVID-19 regulations from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services which regulate nursing homes and the Maine CDC. 

In a statement Ketchum says, the guidelines 'require social distancing of at least six feet' and state health officials also do not recommend hugging booths because of 'infection control issues with cleaning and disinfection between uses'. 

"Residents are dying just as much from social isolation and the impact of that as they are from COVID-19," said Robyn Grant, the Director of Public policy and advocacy for the National Consumer Voice for Long Term Care.

The organization advocates for people living in long-term care facilities across the country. She is hearing from a growing number of family members that many residents are losing the will to live after being cut off from loved ones. Grant urges families to track federal and state guidelines for long term care facilities, to make sure they are being followed. 

As Sarah's dad and other nursing home residents go through the holidays alone, her family understands the precautions are vital to keeping him safe but pray it won't come at a cost to his mental well being. 

For resources, information, and assistance on how to file a complaint concerning a loved one living in long-term care go to the Maine Long Term Care Ombudsman Program.

For information on COVID-19 regulations for visitation and other policies, listed by state go to the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care.