GRECCIO, ITALY – It had been nine months since the nursing home closed itself off to visitors, and the director sensed the toll of isolation was getting "worse and worse." There were video calls and distanced hellos with loved ones on the front lawn. But one resident seemed to be slipping into depression. Another resident said that without her son nearby, every day "felt like a week."
"You can see how it's weighing on them," said Paola Del Bufalo, the home's owner and director.
Then, one recent afternoon, a white truck pulled up, hauling a contraption that was supposed to make nursing home life in the coronavirus era a little less lonely. It was a 7-foot-tall piece of plexiglass, molded into a three-sided booth. It had four cutout holes, where protective sleeves would be added for arms. It was known, in the strange language of the pandemic, as a "hug room," but it was less a room than a barrier: residents on one side, relatives on the other.
"You'll have the possibility to give a hug," Del Bufalo told one of the facility's 16 residents, Enzo Gentili, 77, as she spread the word about the booth.
"So everything goes back to normal?" he asked.
"Kind of," she said.
The plexiglass represented the sort of modest step some nursing homes are now taking in a year when they have faced excruciating decisions about how protective to be and how best to reduce their risks. Some facilities, despite precautions, have been ravaged by the virus, and nursing homes have been responsible for a disproportionate number of covid-19 deaths worldwide. But as the pandemic drags on, it is clear that fully sealing off comes at its own cost, with mental health deteriorating in people who once depended on regular, up-close contact with their spouses, children and grandchildren.
Del Bufalo recognized that her nursing home, Villa Del Sole - in the countryside 90 minutes outside Rome - had weathered the pandemic better than most. A larger nearby facility was so hard-hit, with more than 70 cases, that the army and police temporarily encircled the area and closed off exit routes. But at Villa Del Sole, nobody had died. Nobody had tested positive.
To stay safe, the home's residents had given up the physical therapy sessions, the visits, the Sundays when relatives might take them out for a walk or a gelato. Four-person dining tables had long ago been pared down to two.
The plexiglass, at last, was a way for the residents to be more social. Facilities from Barcelona to Florida had been deploying comparable devices, sometimes with a looser plastic sheeting. In the days before the holidays, Villa Del Sole started filling out a schedule for the hug room, calling up relatives and arranging times when they would show up.
"The fact of holding the hand of a loved one means so much," Del Bufalo said. "It's not as if they hadn't seen one other at a distance. But it's one thing to see, another to touch."
Then, it was Sunday morning, and the first visitor, Gioia Tocchio, 21, arrived. From the front lawn, she saw the plexiglass situated right at the facility's entrance, next to a container of gloves and sanitizing supplies, and there behind the glass was a woman in silk scarf and wheelchair: the grandmother who helped raise her.
"My hands are shaking," Gioia said, signing the waiver forms while her grandmother blew kisses.
Gioia's 82-year-old grandmother, Giovanna Chinaglia, had been independent until a few years ago, living just a few miles away. She was a mother hen with a loud laugh, and it was at her house the whole family would gather every Christmas, as she cooked and talked. Giovanna was among the lucky residents, because her husband of 30 years - a second marriage - lived with her at the facility. But Giovanna, speaking before Gioia arrived, said she yearned for her grandchildren.
"Even just to imagine their voices, I can feel them here," she said, pointing to her chest.
Giovanna started weeping as soon as Gioia sat down, and the first thing they tried to do was hug. But it was a little awkward, with Giovanna in her wheelchair, so Gioia simply put her arms through the holes - and her grandmother clasped them.
"Don't cry," Gioia told her grandmother.
"I'm so very, very, very sad," Giovanna said.
Other staff were around, but the two locked eyes. They moved from small-talk to some reminiscing, but the words were just a soundtrack for a meeting whose meaning was far more physical. Giovanna took her granddaughter's hand. She stroked it. She made more kissing noises.
The topics darted around from dogs to the memory of dancing. The grandmother said she'd been passing the time by building a Nativity scene. The granddaughter said her job at the mall had been put on hold because of holiday coronavirus restrictions. They both agreed the pandemic would pass, and the grandmother starting daydreaming about how else they could get away - a treehouse, maybe.
"So that nobody else could climb up," the granddaughter said.
Five minutes passed, then 10, and the next visitors had already arrived, waiting for their turn at the hug room.
"It's like a gift, being here, because it's beautiful," Gioia said.
"Thank you for everything," Giovanna said.
"What for? I've done nothing," Gioia said.
"For all the love you give me," Giovanna said.
They were both crying again by the end.
"Bye, love," Giovanna said, and before going, her granddaughter stroked her cheek with a gloved hand.
More visits followed - plus tears, laughter, and a sanitizing of the plexiglass every time one family left and the next arrived. One resident showed up for his visit, with three grandchildren, wearing a formal suit and tartan tie. Another, Gentili, exalted in the news that his brother-in-law had arrived with his favorite gift - cigarettes.
For the first visit of the afternoon, a family of three arrived, each wearing doubled-up masks. They were there to see Deflina Severi, 89, one of the newcomers to the facility. Severi, when the pandemic began, had lived in a nearby town with her son Stefano and daughter-in-law. But as Italy went into spring lockdown, Delfina stopped moving around. Her walking deteriorated. She couldn't handle the steps, her son and daughter-in-law couldn't handle the caretaking, and so she moved to Villa Del Sole, where the family she used to live with - plus her grandson - were now on the other side of the glass.
"Hi, love," one of the family members said, as Delfina looked up from her wheelchair.
She seemed caught off guard.
Stefano, her son, tried sticking his hand through the hole. Then her grandson, visiting from Britain, knelt directly in front of her, offering his hands instead. She clutched them, but looked off to the side. She was in the early stages of senility, her family said, and it was a little unclear what she was thinking, feeling, how much of it was confusion or sadness. They tried to keep the mood upbeat, and the grandson, Andrea, mentioned they'd brought special cookies and a cake. Still, she was quiet. Her eyes started to water.
"Aren't you going to say anything," one nursing home staffer said, standing nearby and trying to urge her on.
"I see your skin has improved," the grandson said, still kneeling, as Delfina gently held his hands. "Must be the mountain air."
The family kept at it, minute by minute with positivity, and she seemed to perk up.
The nursing home staffer prodded her again, too.
"What would you like to tell them?" she said.
Delfina asked her grandson if he'd finished his studies.
"As of Friday, I was hired full-time," he said.
Delfina, speaking a little more now, said the pandemic had been "tough." The topic of the vaccine came up, and the grandson said that if anybody had the chance to take it, they should jump on it immediately.
"C'mon, it's almost over," Stefano said of the pandemic.
By the end, Stefano had one arm through a hole and the grandson had another arm through the hole. Delfina stroked their fingers, a little trembly. They talked about making another appointment, coming back soon, and the nursing home staff said it would be easily doable, because the hug room would be there for the months to come. Then, Delfina let go of her loved ones' hands, and was wheeled away out of view on the other side of the glass.