Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire 
                                Tony Tengs sings to his mother, Helen Tengs, Sunday, April 19. In light of stand mandates barring visitors from Juneau Pioneer Home, people with family members inside have found creative ways to stay in touch. That’s been helped by two new iPads recently acquired by the state-owned and operated assisted living facility.

Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire Tony Tengs sings to his mother, Helen Tengs, Sunday, April 19. In light of stand mandates barring visitors from Juneau Pioneer Home, people with family members inside have found creative ways to stay in touch. That’s been helped by two new iPads recently acquired by the state-owned and operated assisted living facility.

Through the talking glass: Technology helps connect Pioneer Home residents and loved ones

Technology helps keep them connected.

Whether they live near or far, people with family in Juneau Pioneer Home are visiting with their loved ones from behind a glass window.

For Tony Tengs, who lives in Juneau, that means standing outside a Pioneer Home window while playing acoustic guitar and singing standards into an iPhone for an audience comprised of his mother, Helen Tengs, and any other residents who care to watch.

“I love you, mom,” Tony Tengs said after finishing a Woody Guthrie song during a recent visit. “I’d like to come in and hug you, mom, but I can’t — to keep you safe.”

Many others communicate through the glass screens of one of the two new iPads acquired by the Pioneer Home to help maintain a line of communication with loved ones. State mandates that seek to protect the especially at-risk elderly residents from COVID-19 have barred visitors to the state-owned assisted living homes.

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“If you’re not a staff person, you’re not allowed to enter Juneau Pioneer Home,” said Gina Del Rosario, administrator for Juneau Pioneer Home, in a phone interview.

The new devices were purchased with a donation from the Juneau Pioneer Home Foundation, a nonprofit set up to assist residents of the Juneau Pioneer Home.

The tablets are how Christy Tengs Fowler of Haines, Tony’s sister, has most recently seen her mom.

“It’s been wonderful,” Fowler said. “When they set it up with the bigger screen, and they put headphones on my mom, it’s gone well. It’s been a really nice option.”

“I’m talking to her almost every other day (on the phone) and FaceTiming or Skyping once or twice a week,” she added.

Video calling has also allowed Juneaites, including Doug Larsen, Margie Beedle and Pam Varni to see their loved ones more often. Some have also visited from outside the dining area window.

Courtesy Photo | Margie Beedle 
                                Sally Thibodeau has a FaceTime chat with son-in-law, Jack Beedle. Two new iPads purchased with support from a donation by Juneau Pioneer Home Foundation are helping Pioneer Home residents stay in touch with their loved ones.

Courtesy Photo | Margie Beedle Sally Thibodeau has a FaceTime chat with son-in-law, Jack Beedle. Two new iPads purchased with support from a donation by Juneau Pioneer Home Foundation are helping Pioneer Home residents stay in touch with their loved ones.

The iPads have also allowed for some creative mother-daughter time, Beedle said.

On a couple of occasions, she’s used an old songbook and her piano to play long-distance games of “Name That Tune” with her mother, Sally Thibodeau.

Beedle said she’s struck by the relevance of World War II-era music’s lyrics.

“So many of these World War II songs have to do with having a positive attitude,” Beedle said. “Those are people of the depression and people of World War II that have figured out how to get through hard times.”

[Pioneer Home residents worry about future in light of budget cuts]

Beedle, Fowler, Tengs, Varni and Larsen each praised the efforts of Pioneer Home staff.

“They’ve made it really great to be communicating,” Larsen said.

He said he’s FaceTimed with his dad, Niels Finn Larsen, a few times and visited through the window on other occasions.

“He’s always been the kind of guy, where it’s not about him — it’s about others. He’ll tell me to keep my mom safe,” Larsen said referencing his mother, who is not a Pioneer Home resident.

Larsen said he and his family understand the visitation restriction is in place to keep residents safe, but the situation is still less than ideal.

He said his father sometimes feels that he is confined to a prison — especially when family visits consist of a phone call from the other side of a window.

“It’s easy to understand why they feel that way,” Larsen said.

While everyone interviewed said the new electronic devices are no true replacement for in-person visits, they do seem to be bringing joy to Pioneer Home residents and their families.

“I see a lot of smiles, and I’m amazed at the use of the technology to connect families,” Del Rosario said.

Varni said the video calls seem to draw more of a response from her mother, Pat.

“She can see me, and she gets so excited she can see me so well,” Varni said. “I think the visual really helps.”

• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt

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