‘Hug tunnel’ is a human solution to isolation of the elderly

Physical connection is among the cruel collateral damage inflicted by the insidious virus that causes COVID-19, but thanks to a “hug tunnel,’’ families are now getting to embrace their loved ones.
Dec. 10, 2020


Tina and Dorothy embrace through a 'hug tunnel' created help with elderly isolation created by the pandemic.
Tina, left, embraces her 90-year-old mother, Dorothy, through a “hug tunnel,” a way to break down the barriers of elderly isolation caused by the pandemic. Photo: UCHealth.

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.

Tina visiting with her mom, but through a gate, unable to physically touch.
Tina visiting with her mom, but through a gate, unable to physically touch. Photo courtesy of Tina Cisneros.

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.

Tina celebrating her Dorothy's 90th birthday with her, a few weeks after they embraced in the "hug tunnel."
Elderly isolation due to the pandemic is real, but families are still finding ways to connect. A few weeks after they embraced in the “hug tunnel,” Tina and family helped celebrate Dorothy’s 90th birthday outside her window. Photo courtesy of Tina Cisneros.

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities have, by necessity, have had to take extreme precautions to protect their residents from the virus.

Listen to Peggy Budai speak about the hug tunnel on “Living Healthy Longer,” a podcast from Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging with Colorado State University.

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.

Melissa, with her children and grandmother at church.
Melissa, with her children and grandmother at church, before the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Melissa Vela.

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.

Melissa hugging her grandmother, Dorothy, through the 'hug tunnel,' created to help with elderly isolation during the pandemic.
Elderly isolation is among the cruel collateral damage inflicted by the insidious virus that causes COVID-19, but thanks to a “hug tunnel,’’ Melissa Vela and her grandmother enjoyed a long embrace after almost 300 days. Photo courtesy of Melissa Vela.

“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.”

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.