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Hugging Walls Bring Comfort to Senior Living Community

A little plastic (and a lot of love) goes a long way this holiday season.

It’s just not the same this year. We’ve traded in-person conversations and physical touch for Zoom and Facetime calls. But with the holiday season – a time typically underscored by special gatherings – now upon us, we long even more for an escape from the small screen conversations that have defined 2020. It’s made us realize how much we took something as simple as a hug for granted. That’s why Westminster-Canterbury on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia Beach, home to around 700 residents, has created plastic “hugging walls” which make it possible for families to embrace their loved ones during this holiday season.

The simple plastic sheet allowed residents Betsy, 82, and Dr. David Via, 92, to hug their 60-year-old son, Rex Hodgson and his wife Joanne, in what was their first time together in nearly a year. Although Mrs. Via had initially shown little interest in using the wall, when Rex wanted a hug from his mom, she agreed. Now that embrace is a moment they cherish.

“We hugged, and it really brings tears to my eyes [talking about it], and I’m not a crying person,” Betsy Via told Garden & Health in an interview. “It was a real hug and it was just delightful. I had no idea that it would add so much to our visit. As far as David and I are concerned, it was a hit,” said Via, adding that she hardly noticed the plastic in between her son and herself. 

Westminster-Canterbury CEO Ben Unkle stands beside a hugging wall where Dr. David Via and a family friend embrace, Photo: Westminster-Canterbury

Via looks forward to another visit from family – and of course more hugs – close to Christmas.

“That would be the best present,” she declared.

Mrs. Via thinks other communities should follow suit. “I really hope that others will take a cue,” Via emphasized. “It’s very simple, and I think that it would mean so much to other communities. Maybe we’ll be able to share the good that we have here with others.”

Westminster-Canterbury Public Relations Coordinator Amy Sheyer explained in an interview that residents were told about the hugging walls in “The Chatter” – the community’s newsletter. The community also has “town hall meetings and they announced it that way as well,” Sheyer said. Mrs. Via notes that residents are also kept informed through mailbox fliers and an in-house TV channel where the center’s CEO provides daily updates. 

Sheyer says that the walls have been so popular over the holidays that a third wall was recently added. The first wall was introduced in early November and, due to demand, a second was added just before Thanksgiving.

Ben Unkle, the CEO of the nonprofit retirement community, spoke with Garden & Health about how the idea for the hugging wall came to be and how it works.

“We knew the holidays were coming and we knew that it had been a long time since some people had been able to hug each other. We had family visitation centers, but we knew that people were hungry for a hug.” This sparked Unkle to begin thinking of ways that he could make it safe for his residents to hug their families, especially since the holidays were coming up. 

Unkle initially looked into more complicated solutions, such as plastic walls with neoprene arms attached. However, deterred by cleaning concerns and the idea that “sometimes the simplest ideas are the best,” Unkle and his staff opted to use a clear shower curtain (but only after confirming its safety with medical experts). 

A hugging wall is assembled in each of the community’s three family visit living rooms, beside trifold plexiglass dividers that allow residents to talk with their families.

The walls are three-sided squares of PVC piping suspended from the ceiling with plastic shower liners hanging below, Unkle explains. Residents enter into the openings of the three-sided squares and walk to the front curtain for their hug. Between each hug, the liners are cleaned thoroughly with chemicals and an electrostatic sprayer. The CEO adds that the curtains are loose enough to give a full hug without breaking the barrier.

Hugging wall instructions, Photo: Westminster-Canterbury

“It’s cheap, it’s quick, and the clear plastic is even better because you can see each other while you’re hugging, and you can see the tear or the sparkle in somebody’s eye.” 

Seeing families able to embrace has flooded Unkle with happiness.

“Selfishly, being an eye-witness to these events has lifted my holiday spirits. I have to admit I’ve grown misty-eyed watching live hugs and compelling pictures of hugs.”

The senior living community isn’t the first to use plastic curtains for hugs. Since the start of the pandemic, so-called ‘cuddle curtains’ have popped up around the globe. Just last month, a Nebraska family was in the news for building a similar contraption so that their vulnerable grandparents could hug their grandchildren safely.

Safety is of utmost importance at Westminster-Canterbury, but Unkle also recognizes the importance of giving his residents the freedom to make their own decisions.

“We took precautionary measures earlier than most senior living communities and we made them sustainable by offering people choices. You [our residents] could choose to be on a track with a red band where you left campus as often as you wanted but you didn’t take your mask off to eat with anybody at dinner. Or, you could choose to stay on campus and wear a green band and you got to dine in our three restaurants and exercise and make greater use of our common areas. Part of the untold story of the pandemic is loneliness and isolation. Most senior living organizations went all or nothing. We honored the adulthood of our members by giving them the choice to pick the precautionary track that fits their lifestyle.”

Throughout 2020, we’ve done what we could to keep our friends and family safe, and doing so has meant avoiding in-person meetings and touch. But a lack of touch and feelings of loneliness can also have detrimental effects on our well-being, especially over the holidays.

“Ironically, at a time when we need all of this, we’re not getting it,” Director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine Tiffany Field told The Washington Post. Field, who has studied touch for over four decades, told the publication that “People emotionally are very excited to see other people, but when they go to hug each other, it’s more than an emotional experience.”

Pressure to the body causes various chemical and electrical reactions to jolt through our nervous systems, The Washington Post reported. “Our heart rate slows, our blood pressure slows, the brain waves turn to theta, which Field said is the oscillating pattern of electrical energy that emerges when we meditate, relax or are about to go to sleep.”

Touch also slows the production of cortisol stress hormones – hormones that attack natural killer cells – which can help strengthen our immune system.

Douglas Nemecek, the Chief Medical Officer for Behavioral Health for Cigna, even went as far as to say, “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,”. Nemecek is referring to Cigna’s own commonly cited study which examines the harm of loneliness.

Westminster-Canterbury resident Gay Dixon, 76, and her 52-year-old son Gary Witzenburg share a story similar to the Vias’.

In an interview with Garden & Health, Dixon explained that she found out about the hugging walls from The Chatter and signed up because she “didn’t want to see him [Gary] through the fence anymore.” It was the first time she had seen her son since March, and she loved every second.

She, like Mrs. Via, insists that the hugging walls should be used elsewhere. 

“Everybody needs it,” Mrs. Dixon said. “I keep telling my friends about it. It’s just like ‘why don’t more people have this’ – I don’t know why–I don’t think people realize how special this is.”

Witzenburg was taken aback by the experience of hugging his mom through the plastic. 

“I just haven’t felt her warmth in too long,” he said. “I’ve held her forever, but it wasn’t ever like this,” he told The Washington Post.

Gay Dixon and her son Gary Witzenberg share an emotional embrace through a “hugging wall” at Westminster-Canterbury. Photo: Westminster-Canterbury

Dixon says that all three of her children and her grandson will be visiting for the holidays just before Christmas. While she had Zoom calls with them toward the start of the year, she’s adamant that nothing comes close to embracing them and meeting in person.

When asked how long she hugged her son during their reunion, Dixon chuckled and said “not long enough.” She holds back tears as she tries to explain how it felt.

“Just to grab him and just hold him and feel him breathe, it’s hard to explain.”

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