Tina Cisneros had not been able to hug her dear mother, Dorothy Cisneros, 90, for 265 days.
Since the pandemic began, Tina had seen her mother a dozen times, but they were always separated by a gate, and unable to physically connect.
Isolation of the elderly is among the cruel collateral damage inflicted by the insidious virus that causes COVID-19, but thanks to a “hug tunnel,’’ Tina and her mom enjoyed a long embrace.
“I didn’t want to let go,’’ Tina said. “It just felt so good. And I could tell it made a difference with my mom, too.’’
The “hug tunnel’’ is a simple construction. It is a pop-up canopy tent enclosed on three sides with clear plastic that makes up the walls of the structure. There are four armholes — two going into the tent and two going out of the tent — so that two people can embrace safely. The “hug tunnel,’’ a tool that Peggy Budai, a nurse practitioner and clinical nurse specialist at UCHealth, is encouraging for use by Colorado’s long-term care facilities, is cleaned and disinfected between each use.
When Tina reached out to hug her mom, she was overcome with emotion – tears, smiles, pure joy. Her niece, Melissa Vela, who Dorothy had pretty much raised, then got her chance to hug Dorothy.
And though Dorothy has dementia, she knew clearly who was on the other side of the plastic.
“There are my girls,” Dorothy said.
Nursing homes and assisted living facilities have, by necessity, have had to take extreme precautions to protect their residents from the virus.
Budai, recognizing the extreme hardship that families have had to endure, decided to take action. At UCHealth, her role is to improve the lives of older adults in the hospitals and their communities, and she knows that isolation has taken a devastating toll on residents of long-term care facilities and their loved ones.
“One report shows that there are already 13,000 more deaths from dementia in 2020 than the previous year,” Budai said. “This is seen as a direct effect of the social isolation that is occurring because of the pandemic.”
The state has created the Colorado Healthcare Ethics Resource Group to address ethical issues caused by the pandemic. As a member of the group’s long-term care subcommittee, Budai began researching ways to bring safe social engagement to older adults living in congregate settings.
Budai discovered a “hug tunnel” used in Canada and Brazil.
“I decided we should bring it to Colorado as a way to bring safe human connection to isolated older adults in long-term care,” Budai said.
With guidance from an epidemiologist expert and long-term care survey leader at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, she created a manual for the hug tunnel so that other organizations can help break down the isolation barriers caused by the pandemic.
Budai’s effort has helped to improve lives of those who experience the “hug tunnel.’’
“I was so excited to hold her,” Tina said. “I would like to hug her without this, but if this is the best we can do, I’m glad. I was so thankful. I got to go home and say, I hugged my mom today.”
Melissa is close to her grandmother. Before the pandemic, she would pick her up three to four times a week. They would attend church or go to Melissa’s house to visit with great-grandkids. They’d cook, play games and go shopping.
“She is a helper and loves her whole family,” Melissa said. “She used to have tamale parties every year. Everyone just went to her — she was the leader of the whole family. We’d love to get together, and she loves to sing. She’d always have everyone laughing. She’s straightforward and funny.”
Dorothy’s husband passed away a few years ago, and Dorothy moved from California to Northern Colorado so that Tina could be her primary caregiver. Melissa had moved to Colorado the year prior.
“She’s my girl,” Melissa said. “It’s been a hard road. Her memory is slipping every day, but sometimes I get lucky and her hug doesn’t feel like a stranger’s hug. It is a hard disease, and I try not to take it personally when she doesn’t know who I am.”
The hug tunnel, Melissa said, has given her a much-needed boost during the pandemic.
“Me hugging her, I don’t have the words to express. Relieved, maybe. I have wanted to see her for so long. It’s been hard for me not to be able to hug her,” Melissa said. “I’ll take that — any plastic and any hug is great.
“It’s a blessing to have this opportunity because we never know what day will be our last, and we knew we couldn’t go into that building. I’m thankful they are doing whatever they can to help us feel connected.”