May 14, 2020 / 9:14 AM / 22 days ago

Tears, joy as care home residents get visits via 'box of emotions'

MONTIJO, Portugal (Reuters) - Maria das Merces struggled to hold back tears after she saw her 90-year-old father at a Portuguese care home - chatting to him from inside a glass booth erected in front of a window to allow elderly residents to visit family during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Makes you want to hold him,” Merces, 63, told Reuters after a 15-minute visit to the “box of emotions”, as the contraption is known.

“I don’t think I would be able to resist if the glass window wasn’t here.”

Opened earlier this month at the Montepio nursing home in the town of Montijo across the River Tagus from Lisbon, the air-conditioned glass box sits outside the building alongside one of the rooms. Residents can sit and talk with their relatives using a microphone set up on both sides.

Merces is one of the many Portuguese with relatives in care homes who are finding it tough to cope with a ban on visits imposed to protect the frail residents from contagion as part of a lockdown declared nearly two months ago.

Around 14% of the around 2,500 care homes in Portugal reported coronavirus cases, according to the government.

Portugal, which has reported more than 28,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 1,175 deaths - a fraction of the toll in neighbouring Spain, started to ease the lockdown on May 4.

Care homes will start to open doors again on May 18 under restrictions, including social distancing between visitors and residents.

Chief nurse Patricia Soares believes care homes should remain shut for longer to protect the vulnerable group.

“We want to keep the virus out,” she said.

More than 90 elderly people live at the Montepia care home, with many suffering from dementia, making it hard for some to understand why they were not able to see their relatives.

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“There were people who didn’t understand it, some still don’t and think their families abandoned them,” said care home president Pedro Santos. “The ‘box of emotions’ brought joy.”

Fatima Sousa, 58, has already used the box three times to visit her 89-year-old aunt Rosa Gordo.

“When we got in and saw her on the other side with her hand on the glass...it was not easy and it’s still not easy,” said a tearful Sousa.

Reporting by Catarina Demony, Miguel Pereira and Rafael Marchante, Editing by Andrei Khalip and Angus MacSwan

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