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Brandy, Rosé and a Ten Pack of Crunchies: Shopping online for the isolating elderly.

I speak to them for around half an hour, with most calls ending in a chat about their younger days or various hobbies, such as writing letters to Americans on death row or creating figures out of papier-mâché.

It was the third week in a row Barry had ordered over a hundred rolls of toilet paper. ‘I’ll take five packs of the standard’ he said, ‘and three packs of the quilted’.
I still hadn’t mustered the courage to ask how one elderly man living on his own, consumed so much loo roll? Was he a black market stockpiler, flogging individual squares to his OAP mates for a premium mark-up? Or more likely, he was just a scared old man, who feared being caught short in another loo roll shortage.

After a few months working for a London charity, ordering online shopping for elderly people, over the phone, such requests became less strange. When one of your client’s order, includes seven kilos of chicken wings to feed the ‘surprisingly tame’ skulk of foxes that eagerly wait outside her window, and another’s consists of five different types of potatoes, a toilet paper mountain seems less bizarre.

Before taking this job, I believed that the pandemic had hit young people hardest. Being in my final year of university when the virus kicked off, it was a very disconcerting time to be entering the real world. I thought that for older people, isolating surely can’t be that different from their normal lives.

Other than my grandparents, who I’m close to, I had little experience of old people. But now my work day consists of calling a stream of 70 to 80 year olds isolating alone and ordering them shopping from their supermarket of choice. I speak to them for around half an hour, with most calls ending in a chat about their younger days or various hobbies, such as writing letters to Americans on death row or creating figures out of papier-mâché.

For some of my clients I am the only person they speak to regularly as they have no relatives or friends still alive. Most haven’t seen anyone in person other than the supermarket deliveryman or the doctor who vaccinated them. Now I realise how access to technology and in particular social media has softened the isolating effects of the virus for me.

Women on average live four years longer than men in the UK. This stat makes sense now, after witnessing the shopping orders of old men compared to women. The majority of males appear to live off wholemeal bread, tins of miscellaneous meat stews, packets of chocolate biscuits and a shocking amount of booze and cigarettes. They are unprepared for my call, meaning I have to remind them that they might want to order some milk and bread this week. It’s interesting to see that the male trait of being reluctant to ask for help is as prevalent in this generation as mine.

One clients’ weekly shop consisted of six bottles of rosé, a litre of brandy and a ten pack of Crunchy bars. This was until he was sternly instructed by his doctor not to order any more alcohol after he had a minor fall following a boozy night. I think most people would have a little tumble after such a strong, murky pink cocktail. Part of me thinks ‘let him live a little’ but then also I accept that this is a worrying level of consumption.

My female clients, however, go one of two ways. Either they are very health-conscious, willing to pay a premium for organic equivalents of baked beans and tangerines. Many are vegetarian, consuming more alternative milks than a student union coffee shop. Or they go the other way, having a basket their sweet-toothed infant selves could only have dreamed about. The bulk of their orders consist of custard tarts, chocolate eclairs and a variation of other soft textured puddings. The virus made all my female shoppers obsessed with hygiene, with most going through a litre of pine disinfectant every week.

An unbalanced diet however, would appear to be an elderly British trait. My one Italian client’s list is what I hope I will be eating when I’m his age. Every week he debates between sea bass or salmon, fillet of beef or lamb cutlets. Gorging on jars of anti-pasti and platters of the best cured meats Sainsbury Taste The Difference can offer. His English is not the greatest but after half a year of taking his orders we have an understanding. ‘Two portions of that English pudding with fruit,’ Bernardo often requests. ‘OK,’ I reply as I add two packets of raspberry trifle to his basket. He clearly has an appreciation for food, unlike many other clients who take the stereotypically British attitude of ‘food is fuel’. He is still able to cook for himself. Many others are stuck with a limited selection of ready meals.

While mostly this job is rewarding, it can be frustrating. Dealing with clients with dementia can often be tricky. One of them said she had reported me to the police as I was an internet scammer. Even though Mary was very apologetic after she realised I wasn’t trying to steal her life savings and even though she hadn’t actually reported me, our relationship was never the same. Trying to navigate additional online security checks needs serious patience. Trying to explain something as second nature as opening a text message takes a lot more skill than I anticipated.

I have grown close to many of my clients even though I have never met them. When Steve didn’t answer the phone for three days I feared the worst, so anxiously called his care company. They had failed to tell me that he’d fallen, was in hospital, but was luckily fine. The relief I felt when hearing the good news brought home how close we had become. After an unexpected break up, I sought moral support from my client, Clive. I was told I would be fine and really it was a blessing. He had lived on his own for 60 years now and had never seen how a partner could fit in with his own life. I appreciated his effort of reconciliation but I can’t pretend that his story made me feel better. In fact rather worse.

As a young person, it’s easy to forget how terrifying this virus has been to vulnerable people. My only fear was spreading it to people I care about rather than for my own health. However, this is very different for old people whose fear is heightened by the constant 24 hour news coverage that is always audible through their receiver. This shopping service has meant they are able to avoid the supermarkets, which the PHE revealed as the most likely place to be exposed to coronavirus. Not one of my clients contracted Covid, which is astounding for a London borough.

I didn’t know what to expect when taking this job. I knew it would be challenging and when hearing my predecessor quit after finding it too stressful, I was unsurprised. I have learnt a lot about a demographic I never gave much thought to. With lockdown lifting, my feelings of frustration and boredom during the pandemic are merely anecdotes in a crowded pub. For my housebound clients however, even after Covid is gone, they will be as cooped up and lonely as they were before.

*All names have been changed