How residents at this Anchorage assisted-living home are hugging their families again

Two women wear gloves and hold hands through holes cut in a clear plastic sheet.
Karen Froland (right) and her mom, Alene Robinson, hold hands on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, at the Aspen Creek assisted-living home in Anchorage. It’s the first time they’ve held hands since March. Aspen Creek set up the “hugging wall” as a way for residents to have some physical contact with loved ones after months staying at least 6 feet apart. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

First, Karen Froland put on long, plastic gloves.

Then, she sat down across from her 98-year-old mother, Alene Robinson, on Wednesday afternoon at Anchorage’s Aspen Creek assisted-living home.

A sheet of clear plastic separated them, with holes near its center. Froland put her arms through. 

And, for the first time since March, the two held hands. 

“You feel good. You feel so good,” Robinson cooed from behind a face mask, on the other side of the plastic. “This is marvelous.”

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Aspen Creek staff call the plastic barrier the “hugging wall,” and they first adhered it to the doorway near the home’s front-entrance last month.

Executive director Anna Houser said she wanted to find a way for residents to hug and hold their families again, since they’ve been under such strict protocols for so long.

“Before the doors were never locked,” she said. “And now, they’re always locked.”

Two people put Velcro on a big sheet of plastic.
Aspen Creek Executive director Anna Houser helps to set up the hugging wall at the Anchorage assisted-living home on Wednesday. The hugging wall is a clear sheet of plastic that is adhered to a doorway with small arm holes cut near the center. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Since the pandemic began, residents can no longer come and go as they please. 

In the summer, they could visit with friends and family outside, as long as they stayed at least 6 feet apart and didn’t touch. 

Cold temperatures, however, brought a policy change: Families now meet one-by-one in Aspen Creek’s gym. But they have to make appointments ahead of time, and the meetings only last about 15 minutes. The time slots fill up quickly. 

It’s hard on residents, Houser said.

“Which is kind of why the hugging wall happened,” she said.

Assisted-living homes across the country have set up similar plastic barriers as a way for residents to have some physical contact with loved ones.

“Their mental health is important, and it matters,” Houser said. 

The hugging wall still comes with a list of protocols, Houser said. Visitors have to fill out a health questionnaire, wear a face mask and gloves and can only stay about 10 minutes. Employees sanitize the plastic barrier between visits. 

A sanitizer spray gun for disinfecting.
A sanitizer spray gun is used to disinfect the hugging wall between visitors. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

“We still have our masks on,” Houser said. “And it’s really just the arms reaching through.”

No residents or staff at Aspen Creek have tested positive for the coronavirus yet, she said Wednesday, and the goal is to keep it that way.

Assisted-living homes are considered high-risk for rapid spread of the virus, and older people are more likely to get very sick if infected. 

Froland, who met with her mom Wednesday, said the added precautions at Aspen Creek mean she can’t visit every day like she used to, before the pandemic.

She’s happy her mom is safe, and the protocols are in place, she said, but she knows it’s also a tough way to live.

“She’s been lonely since March,” Froland said.

So having the option to sit across from one another and hold hands meant a lot.

“It’s just a great thing. And I’m just glad to be able to see her and it meant the world to her,” she said.

“If they do it again, I’ll be the first to sign up.”

Jackie Robinson, 86, also got to hug her family on Wednesday. (Though Jackie and Alene share the same last name, they’re not related.) 

It was her second time at the hugging wall. 

The first time, last month, her oldest daughter and great-grandchildren came.

“When we heard about it, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s silly,'” she said. “But once I did it, oh, it has a lot of meaning. My daughter, Emily, and I were in tears.”

A family meets through a plastic sheet at an assisted-living home in Anchorage.
Jackie Robinson visits with her daughter, Amanda Pagaran, and her son-in-law, Bill Pagaran. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

On Wednesday, another one of Robinson’s daughters, Amanda Pagaran, and her son-in-law, Bill, came to visit. They took turns hugging Robinson, the plastic sheet wedged between their bodies.

“It just felt so good,” Pagaran said. “It’s been so long.”

Houser said Aspen Creek plans to put up the hugging wall at least once a month so residents have a chance — even if it’s brief and through plastic — to hold the people they love.

Two people hug, with a plastic sheet between them as a coronavirus precaution.
Jackie Robinson hugs her son-in-law, Bill Pagaran. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.

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Tegan Hanlon is the deputy digital editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at thanlon@alaskapublic.org.

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