At 57, Joseph Girven was hardly a candidate for assisted living. But that didn’t stop him from moving into Carnegie East House Assisted Living Center in 2020 as COVID-19 was raging.
After leaving the corporate world for the nonprofit sector, Girven has now been helping people on the Upper East Side for 26 years. The COVID-19 pandemic hit New York 13 years into his tenure as Executive Director of Carnegie East. He immediately knew that his elderly residents’ heightened risk for Covid and the close proximity in which they lived meant the pandemic would be particularly treacherous for them. The daily commute he made via Metro-North could pose an added risk.
So Girven took an unprecedented step. He moved out of his home in White Plains and into the Carnegie East House Assisted Living Center to eliminate the commute and ensure the safety of the residents.
“When the pandemic hit, I made a promise to myself that none of the residents were going to die,” Girven says.
A man of his word, he made good on that promise. While more than 15,000 people eventually died of Covid in NYC’s assisted living and nursing homes, not one of the residents of Carnegie East succumbed to the virus.
Girven’s personal motto (borrowed from former president Harry S. Truman) is “The buck stops here.” To him, that means he’s accountable for the well-being of everyone at Carnegie East.
“It means that I’m ultimately responsible, and that I take my job very seriously and I care about the residents. I care about everyone who lives here like they’re members of my own family. That’s why I’m in this line of business, because I care about seniors.”
Despite the fear in those trying times, Girven says both staff and residents managed to keep their spirits up.
“It was kind of like a dorm, almost,” Girven laughs. “I kind of felt like I was an RA at times...it was a lot of fun. I think they felt very secure, knowing I was here during a very difficult period of their lives.”
He knew that the pandemic had the potential to affect seniors’ mental health as well as physical, particularly during times when they had to eat all their meals in their rooms and not eat communally. “I would say ‘I’m sorry that I have to do this, but I’m trying to save your life. Please bear with us. We’re going to get through this, it’ll be over soon.’” To ameliorate social isolation, Girven and his staff went room to room with iPads to help residents FaceTime their family members.
And while the residents were generally very compliant, he chuckles at memories of a few instances when they grew impatient at being cooped up. “I had to break up some wine and cheese parties,” Girven admits.
Living in Carnegie East wasn’t all smooth sailing, of course. “I put my life on hold for 2 years,” he says. “I didn’t go on vacation. I didn’t take time off. I was here for two years, seven days a week.”
But Girven says it was all worth it.
“I’m really proud of it. I’m really proud that nobody died. I think a lot of people died needlessly in some of these nursing homes and other places, because of steps that other places took that they could’ve done differently.”
While Girven eventually moved out of Carnegie East, after two years and the gradual abatement of the Covid threat, he wanted to remain close to the workplace. Girven found an apartment in the neighborhood, his first permanent residence in Manhattan.
“I’ve always wanted to live in New York, and it’s exciting to be a New Yorker,” Girven shares. “I’m so happy I live on the Upper East Side.”
““When the pandemic hit, I made a promise to myself that none of the residents were going to die.” Joseph Girven, Executive Director of Carnegie East House Assisted Living Center.