Cathy Kreft crossed her arms and grabbed her shoulders — receiving the very hug she was delivering.
“Can you give me a hug?” she asked her husband, Jay, who was viewable in a video call. “You gave me one yesterday.”
Until the COVID-19 pandemic, the hug would have been a real one between Kreft, 80, and her 85-year-old husband, who has dementia and lives in a Duluth nursing care facility.
Married 57 years, the couple rarely spent a day apart until the pandemic.
Instead, it was a virtual hug that played out at Kreft's home near Hawk Ridge last week.
Using personal protective equipment, the News Tribune met Kreft and St. Croix Hospice social worker Stacey Foster to observe the effort folks involved are making to keep people connected.
In December, St. Croix Hospice added its InTouch Family Connection Program to its other offerings as a way to help combat the emotional toll on patients who are not able to see loved ones during the pandemic.
“Cathy is a very devoted, loving wife,” Foster said. “This has been extremely difficult for her.”
Until COVID-19 arrived this spring, Kreft visited her husband every day since he moved into a Duluth care facility four years ago in September. She played bingo and sang hymns along with Jay and the other residents.
“Every afternoon I’d bring his clothes home to wash, so he could have nice clothes and not shrink them,” Kreft said. “I’d make his room up with decorations depending on what time of year it was.”
Since March, she’s only seen Jay during twice-weekly summer visits outdoors, and a few sporadic other occasions. She hasn’t seen him since October.
“He’s gone downhill,” Kreft said. “My granddaughter works at a different place, and she says it’s hard on the people — they’re all getting worse. They’re not having any stimulation.”
Early on during the pandemic, she was able to videoconference with him almost daily thanks to efforts at the care facility. But as the vise of coronavirus tightened, stressing congregate care facilities that have been hit with 65% of the state's COVID-19 deaths, those calls have diminished to once weekly.
Enter St. Croix Hospice. The hospice, with an office in Hermantown since 2014, operates in six states. It visits patients living in private homes as well as assisted living and skilled nursing facilities.
As of last week in the Arrowhead region, St. Croix Hospice had 64 patients — 25% in-home and the rest located at 30 facilities throughout the region.
With its program, the hospice is hoping to foster a connection that’s been disrupted by COVID-19 and subsequent visitor restrictions intended to curb the spread of the virus. Most facilities aren’t allowing visitors except for end-of-life situations.
Foster also noted that previously vital volunteer-led companionship and activities programs are also down, too, during the pandemic.
It's in that environment St. Croix is supplying personal protective equipment and other sanitation measures to facilitate live visits. In other cases, it's using staff members to help conduct virtual calls.
“We're doing our best to make sure there's some kind of connection," Foster said. "A lot of facilities are only allowing skilled nursing visits. Sometimes that leaves us only to do phone visits."
The Hermantown office features seven registered nurses, a nurse practitioner, chaplain, two hospice aides, and both music and massage therapists. Most care facilities don't offer hospice service. St. Croix augments care for people with “life-limiting” illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, dementia, cancer, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
After Foster dialed the number to reach Jay, she blended into the background as Kreft and her husband spoke.
Kreft talked about the old Christmas sweater she was wearing — “the one with the snowflake buttons,” she reminded him — and the earrings she wore that Jay had once gifted her.
“We liked to travel,” she said of her life with Jay. “We went on many cruises together. I’m very happy we did. We went on a river cruise with friends, a ton of us, not too many years before his dementia started. Those things are very memorable.”
She was a teacher of young children and those with special needs, and Jay worked many years in charge of the local JC Penney before finishing his career at Lake Superior College.
They have three children and 11 grandchildren. One of them works for St. Croix Hospice and helped convince Kreft she needed help staying connected earlier this year.
"My granddaughter works at St. Croix in the Cities," Kreft said. "I was very upset and hadn't talked to Jay for four days. I tried to get through on the telephone and I just couldn't. I called her and burst out crying. She said, 'Grandma, I think it's time we better look into hospice.'"
The couple once lived in the Lakeside neighborhood. Now, she lives in the basement apartment of a home overlooking Duluth and Lake Superior that she shares with one of her daughter’s families upstairs.
Jay has always been easy to get along with, Kreft said, and would rave about anything she cooked and put in front of him.
“I said to my children: ‘I hope you have a marriage like I did.' He was very adaptable,” Kreft said.
Kreft was the incarnation of grace as she carried the couple’s conversation for 15 active minutes. She was delighted to learn on the other end of the line that the care facility had scheduled a second call for later in the day.
“I love learning their whole history,” Foster said of her patients. “When you take the time to build a rapport, you learn very interesting things. I’ve learned lessons no history book could ever have taught me about life and the things people can overcome.”
Foster had been a corporate writer for Blue Cross Blue Shield for 20 years when she altered her own path after being inspired by a hospice social worker. The woman helped care for Foster’s father as he fought the pancreatic cancer that would ultimately end his life.
“After she left I kept going back and thinking of this woman,” said Foster, who later pointed her trajectory down the same career path.
Foster said she wanted to spend the final 25 years of her career being the same calming influence as the woman was for her.
“It almost feels like a calling,” she said, speaking glowingly of her colleagues and the team effort. “It’s very hard, very mission-driven work.”
The mission to put Kreft in touch with Jay was a huge success.
During the call they were able to locate Jay’s glasses, which Kreft said can be an issue sometimes.
“It means a lot to me,” Kreft said of the virtual call. “I’m very grateful.”
Early on in their calls back and forth, Jay would marvel at the ability to talk with his wife on the video screen.
“Jay was just fascinated with Facetiming over the phone,” Kreft said. “It was a joyous thing to see him, because the last thing he had was a flip phone, so he didn’t have this concept before.”
They blew kisses to one another to end their call.
"I'm so glad you're having a good day," she told him.
They’re scheduled to talk again on Christmas.