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Happy to Help: Supporting Older Adults in Everyday Life

By Rocky Lopes | 10/15/2021

A caregiver helping an older adult at the grocery store.

In our Resource Library, we pride ourselves on providing quality, timely and informative articles, publications and videos developed by our staff at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging. Through our Guest Blogs, we are now welcoming caregivers to share their experiences, wisdom and insights from their unique caregiving journeys with our Resource Library readers. Please note that the views expressed in these blogs are those of the writer(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging.

Rocky Lopes is an emergency manager by profession, having worked for the American Red Cross as a national leader in community preparedness and also at the National Weather Service as Deputy to the Tsunami Program Manager.  He has lived in the same community in the Maryland suburbs northwest of Washington DC his entire life.  He has volunteered for many local organizations to serve his neighbors, such as organizing senior safety home remodeling projects, leading civic organizations, and serving as a paramedic for his local fire department.  Now retired, Rocky continues to find ways to serve neighbors wherever he can to apply his skills and -- best of all -- make new friends.  

I am a guy who can’t say “no.” That’s how I got engaged as an “informal caregiver” for a group I call my “Senior Pals.”

It began when I was taking my aunt grocery shopping in 2005. My aunt said, “my neighbor asked to go with us, and perhaps you can help her with shopping like you do for me?”

Sure, no worries. Happy to help. 

Standing at 4 foot 6 inches, my aunt was, let’s say, “vertically challenged.” So was her friend who was a couple inches shorter. All they needed was someone a bit taller to reach items on store shelves that they couldn’t reach. Then, “maybe you could read the label for me?” was next, as they wanted to know ingredients to make sure there were no conflicts with a medically-supervised diet that restricted salt and processed sugar. 

Our group expanded over time to include more neighbors and friends who needed just a bit more help with the shopping. Carrying heavy bags, learning how to use new-fangled self-checkout, and more. 

As time went on, my group of “Senior Pals” expanded to as many as 20 … though not all at once and not every week. Most of them would ask me to help them about once a month to stock up on essentials that often were in hard-to-find locations.

From time to time as I brought groceries into my Pals’ homes, I would observe other things that needed attention. A burnt-out light bulb in a ceiling fixture, a non-working light switch or a smoke alarm battery needed replacement; a leaky faucet or toilet needed a fix; a stuck door or broken lock needed opening– I offered to do these small “handyman” repairs, which were simple for me, yet daunting to friends who lived alone in the homes in which they raised their families who had long flown the coop, moved far away and kept in touch by phone but seldom visited in person.

Since most of my Pals were on fixed incomes, they could not afford or didn’t want to hire an electrician or plumber for these repairs. They would “live with” a burnt-out light, broken switch or leaky toilet.

I enjoyed feeling appreciated and useful and be able to apply skills I had learned as a homeowner. I was treated somewhat like “another son” to several of my Pals. We developed close ties, somewhat like family. I got more out of this than they did – I so enjoy being able to help. 

Our “Senior Pals” group has become a family to each other. Even if help with grocery shopping isn’t really needed, many still want to go together for the social benefits of being together, sharing stories and making new friends.

Much changed during the pandemic’s “stay-at-home” orders. I taught many of my senior pals how to place grocery orders online. A few did not have a computer or did not feel comfortable ordering groceries online. Those few Pals would call me, give me their list, and I would buy groceries for them and “door-drop” their groceries to them.

I was pleased that during the pandemic, the “Pals Group” would call each other and also call me just to check in. “How are you doing?” would morph into gabfests, feasting on togetherness in another form.

I only asked for reimbursement of actual costs for groceries or hardware required for home repairs. I didn’t do this for pay. I enjoy voluntary service. I admit though, I won’t turn down a plate of my favorite cookie, snickerdoodles!  

Now that all of my Pals are fully vaccinated, as am I, some of us have returned to in-person grocery shopping. It isn’t quite the same and perhaps never will be, but at least we’ve maintained our group’s cohesion.

On a closing note – what goes around comes around. My Spouse died of pancreatic cancer in January 2021. The caring, thoughtfulness and tender understanding compassion – all of it – shone though in how my informal network of “Senior Pals” cared for me during a very difficult time. Their care and love continues. It works both ways.

They say, “it takes a village.” I am happy to have been asked, “will you take my neighbor grocery shopping today?” and benefit from the results of building a network of Pals that sustains my heart.

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