Shopping for Seniors During COVID-19

Elizabeth Murray of Health Advocates for Older People partners with C-Town to deliver groceries to UES elderly residents

11 Jun 2020 | 05:49

Few people know the C-Town on 89th Street and First Avenue better than Elizabeth Murray. Every week, she visits the store and fills approximately 24 grocery orders, routinely spending between 1,200 and 1,500 dollars per trip. But Murray is not shopping for herself or 24 of her closest friends; she is shopping for older residents of the Upper East Side, many of whom are already fragile and all of whose frailty has been heightened by the coronavirus pandemic.

Since 2011, Murray has been involved with Health Advocates for Older People (HAFOP) — an organization that offers services to seniors in order to facilitate healthy aging processes — and is a current board member. Before COVID-19 struck New York City, Murray had the idea to partner with C-Town in order to eliminate delivery fees for ailing seniors.

“I noticed a lot of elderly people dragging groceries and having a terrible time hobbling home, so my idea was to find a supermarket that would expedite deliveries to the elderly,” Murray said. A New-York-based charitable foundation that has previously been involved with HAFOP funded the initial project, which hadn’t yet begun when Covid-19 became severe. In light of the emerging health crisis, though, Murray amended her idea: pay not only for the delivery fee, but for the groceries themselves. Inspired by the initiative, the charitable foundation increased their donation, with the final grant in the five-figures.

Murray began the program approximately two months ago by calling members of HAFOP to ask whether or not they were struggling to get groceries. Many said yes, often because they were having trouble setting up deliveries through corporate services—many companies had extremely limited availability, if any—and had been instructed by their doctors not to go outside due to Covid-19. Murray contacted residents within and outside of C-Town’s delivery zone, and the latter group has groceries delivered by a volunteer.

Mary, a 92-year-old beneficiary of the program, described her experience, saying, “When I tried ordering from Whole Foods or Key Food or Amazon, they didn’t have [the necessities]. And not only that, they didn’t have delivery species open for days.”

Now, participants are called each week, though not all require weekly deliveries. In total, between 75 and 100 people have had groceries delivered, but Murray fulfills roughly 24 orders per week. Those who respond affirmatively to the weekly phone calls, now conducted by Murray and one other HAFOP volunteer, provide a specific list of what they need; such specificity differentiates HAFOP’s grocery delivery service from those run by the city.

“Elizabeth is always wanting to be sure that people get what they really want, which is so amazing to me because a lot of programs, as wonderful as they are, have set things that come,” explained Nancy Houghton, the Executive Director of HAFOP. “Yes, it’s food and nourishment, and I’m not being negative about that, but [it’s different] to get a thing that you really love to eat.”

“The food delivery programs that were set up by the city just didn’t end up working, and you would get a generic food basket,” Murray said, highlighting the intricacies of shopping for older adults. “They can’t all eat the same things, and many of them have no teeth. They have dentures, but they ran out of Fixodent a long time ago.”

Strawberry Ice Cream

Such attention to detail does not go unnoticed. Mary, who is originally from South Carolina, reveled in the opportunity to once again eat sweet potatoes with an abundance of butter. Victoria, a 65-year-old member of the program who is battling severe arthritis, was “very happy” when Murray fulfilled her order for strawberry ice cream, and laughed through describing the experience of hiding the pint in her freezer.

“I can tell [Elizabeth] makes a special effort when shops ... and I can tell she watches the dates on things,” said Mary. “Sometimes, there are things I didn’t order, like chocolate chip cookies. One time, she even included a container of Clorox wipes.”

Beyond the joy and sense of control that such thoughtful groceries bring, the program acts as a type of lifeline for its participants, both physically and financially.

“It’s hard for me to walk any distance carrying anything or pulling anything, so [getting groceries] was becoming more of a problem,” said one 87-year-old Korean War veteran who wishes to remain anonymous.

“Things are very expensive,” explained Victoria, who is unable to work. “That little bit of money that they’re spending — I really appreciate it because I don’t get much from social security.” Though HAFOP does not ever ask members about their financial status, Murray explained that many of those to whom she delivers qualify for SNAP benefits — a government program that provides a monthly supplement for buying food — or live in rent-controlled apartments. Yet none are overbearing, as Murray said that many are hesitant to have their list reach even $50.

Some recipients have sent in donations — anyone who wishes to contribute funds or learn more about HAFOP’s June 17 online fundraising event, Jazz Off the Terrace, can visit www.hafop.org — but the grocery delivery service is entirely free. Given that there is no financial barrier to participating in the program, a wide range of older adults, from New York natives to immigrants from World War II, has been affected and therefore recognized as worthy of care.

“What they want to know is, ‘Why are we calling them? Why did we decide to do this?’ reflected Murray, her voice inflected with gravity. “And I think a lot of it is that they start to feel that they are valued by somebody. They are not just a food package; they are somebody whose needs and wants are acknowledged.”