MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Since the pandemic began you’ve seen images of people in nursing homes and assisted living having to visit with family members through windows. But an independent living facility in Paynesville has figured out a way to add a special “touch” to those visits.

“It was tough on me because I had just lost my husband,” said Marge Hartmann. “I didn’t have family I could hug. I had no family, no contact.”

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Early on in the pandemic Hartmann was mourning the loss of her husband, while her daughter Gretchen O’Fallon was mourning the loss of her father. And because of the virus, they were forced to grieve separately.

“It was tough. Very tough,” Hartmann said.

“The first part of that shutdown we didn’t really visit,” O’Fallon said.

That’s when O’Fallon realized the answer to this problem could be found in a storage facility at Stearns Place, where her mother lives. In a sense, she thought a plastic barrier could be added that essentially breaks down barriers.

“When it was finished in that quick amount of time it was very amazing,” O’Fallon said.

A company called Stang Precision in Paynesville took O’Fallon’s idea and ran with it. Turning the room into a visitation station, right before the holidays.

In the span of 10 days they added insulation, paneling, and an audio system. And last but not least the main feature that gives families a personal touch. Through two openings covered by plastic, family members can hold hands with loved ones.

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“It’s amazing. When you hold her hand you can actually feel the warmth,” Hartmann said. “It’s the most priceless, precious gift they could have given us. It gave some of our life back – as close as we could get.”

“That was a tremendous addition. Before that you’d have to talk through the window,” resident Ray Lindeman said.

Jennifer Engen of the CentraCare Foundation liked the idea so much that she quickly raised money to build two more stations at two other facilities.

“I would say it makes a huge difference on their mental health. Especially winters in Minnesota can sometimes get tough so it’s really important to see their loved ones,” Engen said.

“It’s wonderful. It’s very wonderful. It’s not quite a hug but it’s the next best thing,” O’Fallon said.

The visitation station has been a very busy place since opening in November.

Families and friends have been signing up for one hour visits. They enter separate doors wearing masks, sanitize, and then visit.

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When the pandemic ends, Stearns Place plans to turn the station into a gathering place for people to visit.

John Lauritsen