Arms of Love lift spirits at Garden Place

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A resident and her family member share a moment in the new Arms of Love contactless hugging booth outside Garden Place Senior Living in Columbia. 

2020 has been quite a year so far, but probably most challenging for Garden Place Senior Living in Columbia.

The facility was the site of a tragic outbreak of COVID-19 earlier this year, but staff and residents are looking forward to a brighter future.

Last Wednesday, Garden Place hosted a drive-by parade to announce its innovative new “Arms of Love” contactless hugging booth. The booth is made of three panels with two  arm-length glove holes in the middle that allow family and friends to embrace residents while minimizing the risk of spreading coronavirus associated with physical contact.  

Columbia’s Garden Place Executive Director Wendy Weck and her husband thought of the idea and made it a reality. Her husband built the contraption and Wendy decorated it, saying she wanted it to be “bright and cheerful.”

“It’s been hard the past months for our residents,” Weck said, adding that they especially missed being physically close to family and friends.

Garden Place resident Nona Mundy described what life has been like since COVID-19 restrictions were put in place in early March. 

“It was difficult to accept, but I know it needed to be done,” Mundy said. 

She had been at the senior care facility for about seven months when restrictions began and had been working on gaining strength by walking around the building every day. 

“(The walking) stopped when we were confined to our rooms for nine weeks – that was tough and probably what I missed most,” Mundy said, adding it was “not easy to rely on family to supply items I would normally shop for myself with them.”

The isolation began as a result of a total of 38 cases of COVID-19 among residents and staff at the Columbia facility this spring. In all, 11 residents died as a result. Residents were not allowed to leave their rooms during that time to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Even now, a visit to (an off-site doctor) gives you two weeks confined. I don’t like it but I understand why,” Mundy explained, but added she “cannot name anything that makes me regret my choice to come here.”

During visitation and other coronavirus-related restrictions, Mundy – an avid reader – has kept busy with books, walking and TV. 

Garden Place is also a pet-friendly facility, so she has her cats to keep her company. She enjoys the building, grounds and view from the rooms and says “the caregivers are pleasant, friendly and always helpful.”

If the weather and spirit at Garden place last Wednesday are any indication, there seemed to be an upbeat atmosphere after what was a gloomy spring.

Several dozen cars of family and friends as well as Columbia police and fire vehicles drove past the front entrance to say hello and send well-wishes to residents and staff scattered throughout the lawn. 

They also saw the Arms of Love on display with Weck holding a sign reading “Call to schedule an outside visit and hug!”

“We’re just trying to get back to a new normal,” said Weck, explaining that outdoor visits with the Arms of Love have “shed a new light” on the situation for residents. 

“The sense of touch is huge,” Weck said. “The residents are just as excited” as the visitors to be able connect physically, she added, noting outdoor visits  give residents an opportunity “to forget about everything else that is happening for a while.”

The facility has not had another case of COVID-19 since late April and has been reintroducing modified services after being released from the strict isolation measures.

Weck says residents “have more freedom to move around inside and socially interact,” but that everything is being done with social distancing in mind. 

“We’ve slowly integrated back into the dining room, but it is only one person to a table,” she gave as an example.

Arms of Love is the most recent effort to bring back a sense of community to a group that has missed it. Weck reports that “quite a few” outside visits have been scheduled.

“It has been emotional and heartwarming,” Weck said while sharing a story of a visitor who saw a different family meet. The visitor observed the interaction while waiting for her own scheduled outside visit and told Weck she could have used a “whole box of tissue” just from seeing the joy the visit brought the other family members.

“Our hearts are full of warm, fuzzy feelings at Garden Place. The Arms of Love fulfilled its purpose of uniting family and residents in a safe, personal way,” read a post on the facility’s Facebook page.

Garden Place Senior Living in Columbia is located at 480 DD Road. To schedule an outside visit or for more information, call 618-215-6174.

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