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Portugal turns to cranes to end care home isolation

Desperate times call for desperate measures and at one care home in Portugal, under severe coronavirus lockdown, that means employing a crane to facilitate meetings between residents and their loved ones.

“How are you?” Cremilde Pereira asks her older brother Jose from the crane that has parked her level with his first floor window.

“Like a bird in a cage!” replies the 79-year-old who is seated at his window in his wheelchair, flanked by two caregivers wearing clear plastic visors.

“When all this is over, you will have rice pudding and cake,” says 68-year-old Cremilde, regretting that she was not able to celebrate Jose’s birthday.

This visit marks the first time the pair have seen each other in two months of confinement.

“With everything that has happened in retirement homes, I am always worried about him,” says Cremilde, a former grocer.

In Portugal as in other European countries, the pandemic linked to the new coronavirus has claimed many victims among the elderly living in retirement homes.

But thus far, no case of contagion has been detected among the hundred tenants of the Santo Antonio retirement house where Jose lives in the coastal town of Figueira da Foz, midway between Lisbon and Porto.

The town of roughly 60,000 inhabitants can count just 30 officially declared cases in total.

– End of confinement –

Portugal as a whole has been relatively lightly touched by the pandemic with just over a thousand deaths.

That has prompted the authorities to begin the process of loosening the lockdown from Monday but no date has yet been set for when retirement homes can welcome visitors again.

A large screening operation detected cases in a tenth of the country’s roughly 2,500 retirement homes, the Ministry of Health said on Thursday.

The retirement sector has asked the socialist government to commit to a timetable and this week Health Minister Marta Temido said the issue had to be “reassessed” without compromising the safety of the elderly.

“We have no information on how long this isolation could last,” says Joaquim de Sousa, director of the charity that runs the home where Jose Pereira lives and the adjoining Silva Soares care home.

The idea of using a crane and lifting platform to organise visits without breaking the tenants’ confinement came to him when he read an article about a Belgian business owner who had done the same thing with a platform normally used to wash windows and buildings.

– Emotional benefit –

“Good ideas are there to be seized,” says de Sousa, adding that he had no difficulty in finding a company ready to provide a crane and operator at no cost.

When Cremilde comes back down to earth, the basket is disinfected. It is Laura Madaleno’s turn to be raised some five metres above the ground, a chance at last for her to see her husband Valdemar.

“As long as there are no visits, and no one knows how long it will last, it’s the only way we can see each other,” says the 65-year-old housewife.

According to Ana Magalhaes, the director of the Santo Antonio retirement home, the emotional benefits of the visits organised since the beginning of the week are immediate.

“Whether it’s on the residents’ side or on the families’ side, it’s extraordinary. It’s one thing to have news, it’s another to see with our own eyes that our loved one is fine,” she says.

“This confinement and the stop on visits have increased the feeling of abandonment of our residents… and they greatly appreciate this new meeting system.

“They spend the day saying thank you.”