A mother and daughter. A sister and brother. Two close friends.
Finally, after nearly a year of COVID-19-inspired FaceTime chats or looking at each other through windows, loved ones at a pair of nursing homes in Orange and Riverside counties are getting the chance to touch each other again.
They can hold hands. Even hug.
These simple acts of physical contact are possible because of a simple contraption made out of PVC pipe, polycarbonate sheeting, disposable shoulder-length food handler gloves and, of course, human ingenuity.
It’s called the SmileMakers Station, named after the philanthropic volunteer group that assists the Council on Aging — Southern California in bringing comfort to older people.
Prototypes of the portable, freestanding device were presented this week to La Palma Nursing Center in Anaheim and Magnolia Rehabilitation & Nursing Center in Riverside. With a few tweaks 24 more will be built, at a cost of about $600 each, and distributed free to other skilled nursing facilities in the two counties.
Judging by reactions of the first people to try them out, timing the deliveries right before Valentine’s Day couldn’t have been better.
Tears welled up in Rachelle Lumbad’s eyes as she stood beside the SmileMakers Station on a patio at La Palma Nursing Center, waiting for Esther Lumbad to be wheeled out for an afternoon visit. During the Feb. 11 visit, Rachelle Lumbad had to wave a hand in front of her masked face to calm herself. She explained that the last time she could caress her mother was during a visit on March 18, the day before California’s first lockdown order.
“Mama,” Lumbad called out as her 72-year-old mother, paralyzed on one side by a stroke 10 years ago, was positioned by a nurse at the SmileMakers barrier. Then, with her arms thrust through the attached gloves, she clasped her mother’s left hand and stroked her hair.
“Hi, Mother,” she cooed. “I can touch you. How are you?
“Now I can hold you again.”
Esther Lumbad used her good hand to put a tight grip on her daughter. “Thank you, baby,” she said. “Thank you. Love you.”
Then she repeated those words: “Thank you. Love you. Thank you.”
For residents in long-term care facilities, and the people who love them, the months of sickness and death from COVID-19 have been horrific. Older people in general have died in the highest numbers since the start of the pandemic, and those living in congregate settings, such as skilled nursing facilities and assisted living centers, have been particularly vulnerable.
In April, the Magnolia center in Riverside made national news when 12 staff members — some sick from COVID-19 and others not wanting to be exposed to the outbreak among patients and staff — failed to show up to work for two straight days, leaving dozens of patients in the care of a single certified nursing assistant. Under an emergency evacuation, its 83 patients were moved elsewhere. Magnolia shut down completely until July, then changed ownership and management in October. It now has 71 residents, most long term, in its care.
Amel Boucher, activities director at Magnolia for 30 years, was eager to get the SmileMakers Station.
“Magnolia has been through some tough times,” she said. “I’m thrilled. It’s a really good thing.”
Restrictions on visits, group activities and congregate meals inside long-term facilities have left many who love those residents frustrated, dealing with their own isolation and loneliness. Also, the Council on Aging has been unable to send advocates into facilities to monitor the well-being of patients and help resolve problems; all of that communication is now done by phone.
But at least some of that frustration might be eased by the creative use of PVC pipe and gloves and polycarbonate.
A few months ago, Hazel Lambert, the director of the Council on Aging’s Ombudsman Program in Riverside County, stumbled upon a news item about a Florida man who had built a more rudimentary version of the SmileMakers Station just so he could hold the hand of his wife, who has dementia. Lambert was on the lookout for ideas to cheer up the older people confined to their nursing homes.
“Our biggest concern was what we were hearing about isolation and loneliness,” Lambert said.
It’s been hard on their relatives, too.
“This hit us hard and fast … It was like close the doors, don’t come in,” Lambert said. “We were getting calls saying ‘Why can’t we see our loved ones?'”
Things have eased up a bit, with many long-term care centers using window visits and some setting aside a special room for socially distanced one-on-one visits. Such visits typically require both parties to wear full personal protective gear and are monitored by a staff member to maintain health and safety protocols.
Lisa Wright Jenkins, the Council on Aging’s president and chief executive, jumped on the Florida man’s idea when Lambert shared it: “I think she was a little surprised when I said, ‘OK, let’s do this.'”
Fred Randall, a Council on Aging board member whose mother, suffering from dementia, spent several years in a Michigan nursing home, provided the funding for the prototypes made by the SmileMakers program. Randall, a retired attorney, will also pay for the remaining 24 to be built by Coeste Design in Corona.
Until most people get vaccinated for COVID-19, the SmileMaker Stations are expected to remain useful. They’ll also help with ombudsman visits.
Jamie Cansler, director of development and community outreach for the Council on Aging, said that when she tested the prototype at the factory during a visit with Randall, it was the first time over the past year that she’d hugged anyone other than her husband.
“It was so shocking. I teared up.”
Warmth of another person
On a wet and breezy morning at Magnolia, the noise of cars zooming by on the busy street meant friends Karen Andrews and Kay Wood had to lean in close on either side of the SmileMakers Station to hear each other. But that didn’t matter.
Handmade Valentine cards and festive balloons decorating the patio added to the festive mood.
Wood, 89, has called Magnolia her home for more than four years. The women became friends at church before Wood entered the nursing home. Before the pandemic, Andrews, who lives in Corona, used to visit about twice a week. Now, they communicate mostly by smartphone — Wood got the hang of one she bought last year — or the occasional window visit.
“I can feel your fingertips are cold,” Wood said to Andrews, who had stretched her hands through the long gloves.
“Well, it’s cold out here, Kay,” Andrews answered. They both laughed.
“This is really something,” Wood added.
Later, Andrews reached up to adjust Wood’s face mask, pressing it against the bridge of her friend’s nose.
“You can feel the warmth of the other person,” Andrews said. “That’s really nice because you don’t do that through the window or on the phone.”
They kept a tight hold on each other the entire half-hour spent together.
Later, Cathy Meza visited her older brother Burt Dyer. She’s 59 and her brother, 69, mainly raised her, she said. She hadn’t seen him for a several months. He was hospitalized and in intensive care with something unrelated to COVID-19 before coming to Magnolia a few weeks ago, she said. He has recently developed dementia.
“There you are,” Meza, who drove up from Temecula, said after flinging her hands through the gloves at the SmileMakers Station to grab her brother.
“It’s so good to feel you.”