Husband builds device to visit wife in long-term care facility

Published: Sep. 3, 2020 at 8:52 PM CDT
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For nearly 6 months residents in assisted living facilities have been off-limits to in-person meetings to help stop the spread of COVID-19. But a local maintenance director, a husband desperate to see his wife and a business owner combined forces to create a way for face to face contact while keeping both residents and visitors safe.

James Shelton never misses his Monday appointment to see his wife of nearly 61 years. For 30 minutes he shares his feelings with her. “It’s so good to see you. You look so good. Everything is okay once they roll you out where we can see you,” said James to his wife.

Shelton’s wife, Jimmie Ruth, has Alzheimer’s. She’s a resident of Seagrass Village Memory Care in Panama City Beach.

“She was diagnosed in 2012 and the symptoms first showed up in 2010,” said Shelton. “Then in 2019 she fell and it got much worse after that.”

When the pandemic hit all contact with Jimmie Ruth ceased. As with all assisted living facilities, no one was allowed in the building.

“They used to go up to the window and look in. Knock on the window, wave, use cell phones,” said Maintenance Director for Seagrass Village Michael Florence.

Shelton said they tried Facetime but it only confused his wife, so three months went by with no contact.

“This is the longest we’ve ever been separated,” said Shelton.

So out of desperation, an idea was formed. Being the maintenance director at the facility Florence saw the need for family and residents to connect in a tangible way.

“Originally I came up with the plan of how to make the [large] square [frame] and we had plastic over it,” said Florence.

Shelton saw the square frame and knew it needed to be sturdy especially because he was thinking of a safe way to actually see and even touch his wife.

“Seeing my wife’s eyes tell me more about her cause she is not able to talk very much,” explained Shelton. “So if I can see her eyes I know more about how she’s doing and what she’s feeling.”

Shelton talked with Florence about the frame and the dimensions and added his own ideas.

“Mr. Shelton is the one who came up with the plexiglass, the gloves, [to allow safe touching or hugging] and everything else,” said Florence.

“The key to this frame is Lexan the clear part, and a friend of mine Randall McCall at Maritech [Marine]...they’re very difficult to cut, he machined that for me,” said Shelton. “That’s the key to the frame is being able to get the Lexan cut so you can put your hands through and touch the person. Until we started using this frame it had been 3 months since I had seen my wife.”

Sometimes he spends the half-hour just looking at her.

“I just sit and stare because we only got a 30-minute window and it will be another week before we can come back and visit,” said Shelton.

Because of the high-quality material the frame costs around $200 to make.

“And the first time I saw my wife it was worth it,” said Shelton. “It’s interesting that she still knows us. So many things she has forgotten but she still knows us. And to be able to see her helps her remember.”

The frame isn’t only for the Shelton’s to use. Other residents and their families have access, with a thorough cleaning in between.

“It usually starts at 9 o’clock and doesn’t end until 4 in the afternoon,” said Florence.

They’ll take anything they can get for those precious few minutes.

Shelton and Florence are sharing the complete set of drawings for the frame with anyone interested in making one.

This is the viewing panel blueprints for anyone interested in building the Lexan Frame.
This is the viewing panel blueprints for anyone interested in building the Lexan Frame.(JAMES SHELTON)
This is the blueprint of how the frame is assembled.
This is the blueprint of how the frame is assembled.(JAMES SHELTON)

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