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Riverside team member keeps families connected despite the challenges of the pandemic

Emily Mallon
Sometimes it’s hard to be grateful during a pandemic.

Emily Mallon worked seven days a week at the height of COVID-19 doing almost nothing that was part of her original job description. The activities director at Patriots Colony At Williamsburg wasn’t up to her ears planning game nights and happy hours.

Her days at the Riverside-sponsored retirement community revolved around family visitation and how to do it safely. With news reports delivering grim statistics regularly about surging cases, everybody, it seemed, wanted an in-person visit to check on a family member. 

Yet finding a way to make that happen in a world that discourages hugs in favor of social distancing isn’t easy, particularly given the vulnerable population at the convalescent center of the community where Mallon works. Many of the residents there come straight from the hospital for therapy; others suffer from long-term health conditions. 

Contracting the virus could become deadly. But connecting with family was never more vital.

“I’d walk out of my office for 30 minutes and come back and have six voicemails wanting to set up visitation,” Mallon says. 

Safety was paramount. Changes in protocol and the challenges around that made what used to be routine overwhelming at times.

Yet, Mallon persevered. Complaining wasn’t on her radar. 

Mallon knew she could go home to her family every night in Hampton. She could see her fiancé, Cory, her sweetheart from Kecoughtan High, at the end of another long day.

“I could do what the residents couldn’t,” she says.

Her workdays were long, but she drew strength from her peers. Her Riverside coworkers became her rock. 

“I have a support system at Riverside, and I work with some really incredible staff members,” she says. “They are all so wonderful. All of us checked in and talked to each other. That helps a lot and it helped us give good care to the residents. If you have some frustration about something, you feel like you’re being heard. We’ve got great administrators here and that has really helped during this time. That’s not the case with some of my friends who work at larger facilities. I’ve never felt like I can’t go and talk to someone here.”

Mallon started her position during the summer of 2017 on the heels of graduating from George Mason University. The moment she arrived at the picturesque community close to Colonial Williamsburg, she fell in love. Initially the activities director for the assisted living community, she learned quickly that the residents enjoyed live entertainment events, happy hour gatherings and participating in BINGO. 

Moving into the same role at the convalescent center required modifications, but she adjusted. When COVID came, she realized just how nimble she was in transitioning into a role that was never on her radar before.

“It was important to make sure everybody had a way to connect with their families,” she says. “That’s a job in itself.”

Mallon arranged window visits and Facetime calls. Not every resident had a window room; she had to work around that. Some were saddened when they could see their family member, but they couldn’t feel them. Hands couldn’t touch. But they could line up together separated by the glass in between.

“That’s emotional to see,” she says.

Mallon realized quickly she needed to organize. She designated Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for Facetime calls and Tuesday and Thursdays for window visits. Weekends combined both. 

For months, Mallon was either facilitating requests or scheduling new ones.

Sometimes the visits were heartbreaking. Mallon watched a daughter drive from the Midwest to visit her father. He was unable to understand what was going on around him because of dementia. Father and daughter were only able to stare at one another through a closed window.

Mallon weathered her personal battle with COVID when she contracted the virus in December. With the loneliness of two weeks of quarantine hitting firsthand, she became an even more empathetic listener.

“I felt like I could totally relate to the residents and their loneliness,” she says. 

Maintaining one-on-one relationships became a welcome part of her week. Some needed an ear, others, a shoulder. Mallon knew that in many cases, she was their lone personal contact of the day. Clinical staff would drop off medicine but usually wasn’t able to stay long.

Mallon carved out the time to sit and talk.

“Taking the time to listen, to calm their nerves, that’s important,” she says. “They might have anxiety that their family’s not here. They might be feeling by themselves. The majority of people just enjoy having somebody sit and talk to them. 

Most of the time they didn’t converse about the virus. She heard stories about their children or jobs they used to hold. One veteran shares his memories from World War II. Mallon’s a golf enthusiast so she delighted in the details of a proud grandmother relaying her granddaughter’s new job, working with professional golfer Dustin Johnson.

“One grandfather tells me the same stories, but he has such a big smile every time, I just listen,” she says.

When residents show their gratitude, Mallon wells up. “One of the sweetest residents who was leaving said, “Thank you so much for inviting me, for including me, for all the things you’ve done here and making these visits with my family possible.’ That really made me teary-eyed. At the end of the day, I don’t need a gift. It’s nice to know that somebody recognizes what you’re doing.”