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Senior community finds way for families to connect face-to-face

When Thrive Senior Living had to shut its doors to visitors amid COVID-19, the team handcrafted a solution to keep seniors connected

ROSWELL, Ga. — Social distancing has been an adjustment for millions in Georgia, but for seniors and families, the separation came early, and Gov. Brian Kemp said seniors should continue to shelter in place until May 13. 

Meanwhile, one Atlanta-based senior living community created a solution to keep families connected. It's a fix that Colleen Ristau, whose father resides at the Georgian Lakeside, is grateful for. 

"My dad will be 89 in June," Ristau told 11Alive. "He moved there in January actually with my mom."

RELATED: Islands of protection in a sea of COVID-19: Dozens of senior living facilities in Georgia reporting zero cases

Ristau's father hasn't been a Thrive Senior Living resident for long, but with his move, came a lot of change. Dempsey first lost his wife of more than 60 years to cancer, and then came the disruption of COVID-19. 

"[Staff] came in and told us we'd have to leave which was heartbreaking, but we understood," Ristau said of the day she learned of the precautions being implemented at Thrive. "He's got heart disease, and we needed to keep him safe."

"We made some tough decisions really early on in this process to shut our buildings to visitors," Thrive Senior Living Founder and CEO Jeramy Ragsdale told 11Alive, adding it was a difficult decision but the right call. 

While Thrive communities first relied on FaceTime and phone calls to keep families connected, Ragsdale recognized the heartbreak of separated families and decided to do something about it. 

"I'm not the most handy person in the world but my dad has a woodworking shop," Ragsdale said. "[We] ended up creating a poly carbonate glass panel that rolls. We custom built it to fit inside the front doors of our communities and created a venue where residents and families can visit in a safe way across these barriers."

Dubbed the "Clear Connection" panel, the custom window allowed for a face time reunion for residents and loved ones, utilizing a phone on each side of the panel to communicate. 

As soon as Ristau learned of the panels, she signed up.

"He came in with a big smile on his face and looked great so it was just literally one of the best gifts we could have ever gotten getting to see him and get to communicate with him like that," Ristau said.

The Thrive team is now working to install panels in all of its communities, with staff booking families for communication time. The panels and phones are sanitized fully between use, according to Ragsdale. 

"Our biggest challenge is now telling families 'your time is up' because there's someone there to visit behind you," Ragsdale said of the panels' popularity. 

For Ristau and her siblings, who join in via Zoom, the panels offer priceless time to talk to and check on her dad.  

"The look on his face when he sees me and says, 'Thank you so much for coming, Colleen,' and I say 'that's the best part of my day, Dad.'"

In hopes the idea can be replicated at other senior communities, Thrive Senior Living posted the panel prototype plans on their website. More information can be found here.

11Alive is focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the virus. We want to keep you informed about the latest developments while ensuring that we deliver confirmed, factual information.

We will track the most important coronavirus elements relating to Georgia on this page. Refresh often for new information.

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