Sitting in a motorized shopping cart, James Marshall pointed to some very large grapes on the top row of the produce section and asked Zita Tepie if they were plums.
“I can’t tell from down here,” he said.
Marshall is among a growing number of Montgomery County residents maintaining their independence through the kindness of strangers.
Marshall, 62, of Gaithersburg, is one of 76 county seniors who get regular help with their grocery shopping through The Senior Connection Senior Shopping Program.
“Senior Connection is a nonprofit linking older adults to services that help keep them independent, in their own homes and their own communities,” Mary Murphy, Senior Shopping Program manager, said.
The Senior Connection’s mission, according to its website, is “to provide mobility” to seniors. Its programs include: escorted transportation to medical appointments, visitation in person and by phone, money management and paperwork assistance, and the Senior Shopping Program.
Until 2010, the Red Cross offered the service. When that organization dropped it, The Senior Connection stepped in to fill the gap.
“We are an organization that offers transportation services,” she said.
Like many of the Senior Shopper care receivers, Marshall lives alone. He does not drive and, because of a prosthetic leg, needs a cane to get about. That makes grocery shopping difficult.
He needs help lifting items into his grocery cart and carrying them into his apartment.
Tepie, also of Gaithersburg, is Marshall’s Senior Shopper. She calls him weekly to arrange for a shopping trip and together they travel the aisles of the Gaithersburg Bottom Dollar Food store discussing what he needs, what’s a good deal and what he can afford.
“I love it,” Tepie said. “I just like helping people who can’t help themselves.”
Tepie and Marshall have been shopping together for three months and are no longer strangers. During an outing Feb. 8, the two were more like friends, chatting as they shopped and checking together to see what he needed.
“It’s my way of giving back,” Tepie said. “I’m retired, but I’m healthy.”
Both volunteer shoppers and care receivers come from all parts of the county, Murphy said, though The Senior Connection tries to pairs the two geographically if they can. Right now the organization needs more volunteers in ZIP codes 20906 in Silver Spring and 20814 in Bethesda. Interested people can call Marcia Custer, director of community development, at 301-962-0820, ext. 14.
Nikki Brush, who lives in Silver Spring, shops for a senior from Takoma Park, a senior she is happy to have in her life.
“It is such a blessing to call her,” Brush said. “She is always so welcoming.” Brush’s care receiver does not go to the store with her, but sends her with a grocery list and a signed check.
“It’s a very consistent list every week,” Brush said. “Primarily what she buys are the special deals. Being on a very low income, she has to buy what is on sale.”
Brush said her care receiver also has asked her to help her get more vegetables in her diet, and Brush does that.
Establishing a relationship between seniors and volunteers is very important, Murphy said.
“I am constantly amazed at the generosity of the volunteers and the commitment they have with their care receivers,” she said.
Murphy also said most of the seniors in the program cannot take advantage of grocery chain shopping services that deliver because those require computer access, something many low-income seniors do not have.
She said she believes other seniors would benefit from the program. She would like them to apply by calling her at 301-942-1049.
To qualify for the program, people have to be at least 60 years old and have an annual income that does not exceed $27,925 for a single person or $37,825 for a couple, she said.
“I really appreciate this program because there are a lot of us seniors who can’t get up and get around,” Marshall said.