One of the biggest challenges for some people as they move into their senior years is loss of mobility. Life can gradually slip into a narrow world defined by apartment walls and a television box. If they do not have family nearby, the day becomes a tragically lonely time.

It's not always easy to know how to merge into the life of people who are shut in. But one very natural point of contact is shopping for food. Elderly people often end up with a diet that resembles the worst of hospital food, frozen foods and microwave meals for no other reason than the difficulties they encounter negotiating traffic and aisles.

To find out how to connect with people who live a mostly shut-in lifestyle, contact your local social services offices or religious group (your church might sponsor a related program). Join with at least two other friends to make a commitment to do a few regular shopping hours per week for a person who is shut in.

Here’s how this typically works. First, you and your friends find a person who would love assistance when he or she is shopping. Visit that person for a planning meeting and talk through what he or she likes to purchase, what stores he or she likes to frequent, and what budget he or she needs to work within. Agree on a time for the first shopping trip, and be sure to show up at least five minutes early for the first outing.

Don’t take charge of the shopping. Most people relish the chance to make decisions for themselves, sort through the various vegetable options, and compare prices. Your job is to provide a kind of buffer to the pace, crowd and noise. Keep in mind that the shopping trip will take much more time than you are used to and will require building trust with someone who only knows you as a stranger. Be exceptionally patient, stay conversational and don’t offer advice!

When you stand in line to purchase the groceries, stay in the background so that the person is the one talking with the checkout staff. Perhaps you can offer to bag the groceries. If the staff talks directly to you, defer to the person who is buying. (One of the negative experiences of growing older is that people start avoiding eye contact and/or conversation with the individual. This shuts in the person even more than he or she already was.)

Be sure when bagging the groceries to ask how the person wants them to be packed. Some folks have 50-plus years of routines that matter to them. Back at the house, when unloading the groceries, be sure to store all the items exactly the way your client wants them stored. Don’t become a closet organizer or kitchen remodeler. The person whom you are helping needs to sense your respect and delight in how he or she has set up the home. It can be tempting to do something a little bit more "sensible," but the bottom line is that such help is insensitive.

Over time, you may discover what coupons your client likes to use for shopping. Scour local papers and stores for similar coupons and bring those along for the next shopping outing. It’s a dignified way to bring someone’s shopping bill down without a handout.

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