"I'm a senior and I have asthma, so I really can't go out to the stores,” Better says. “My husband's already had [COVID-19], so I'm just kind of scared."
Fortunately for Better, who lives in San Diego, a volunteer delivery service called Teens Helping Seniors is making sure at-risk populations can stay at home while obtaining food and other critical resources.
The organization, started by high school classmates Dhruv Pai, 16, and Matt Casertano, 15, in Montgomery County, Maryland, connects volunteers with nearby seniors to deliver groceries and medication free of charge.
"I didn't really want my grandparents to have to go out and go to grocery stores and be in contact with a lot of people,” Pai says. “I thought, What if I can kind of be the intermediary so they don't have to put themselves at risk?"
Groceries and conversation
The organization has 23 chapters across the country and delivers to hundreds of seniors, a service that public health experts say is critical to keeping older populations healthy.
"Any time an older adult goes out into public into an enclosed area such as a store … there is some risk of contracting COVID-19,” says Sheria Robinson-Lane, a gerontologist and assistant professor of nursing at the University of Michigan. A recent jump in COVID-19 cases across the U.S., along with research that finds that asymptomatic carriers can spread the virus, makes it even more important for older adults to stay at home when possible, she says.
In addition to making deliveries, volunteers often strike up conversations and develop relationships with those they serve, curbing loneliness faced by those who live on their own or have limited human contact during the pandemic, according to Pai.
That loneliness “can have really negative psychological effects,” Pai said. “[We] have tried to create a mental health network for these seniors to let them know that they're not alone."
A recent study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found evidence linking social isolation with mortality, depression, dementia and other health conditions.
Jess Bradford, 16, who leads the Teens Helping Seniors Pennsylvania chapter from her home in Delaware County, says volunteers have built friendships with the seniors they deliver to.
"There definitely is a new sense of solidarity,” Bradford says. Volunteers often see the same people regularly, and some seniors have been baking treats to thank the teenagers.
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Safety a top priority
Sedelta Verble, 65, says the organization's personalized deliveries make her life during the pandemic much easier.
"They just said, ‘Give us everything you need and we'll have one person do it in one day to make it convenient for you,'” the McLean, Virginia, resident says.
Better says volunteers often contact her if stores are out of a food item she requested so she can let them know what to substitute, and send her regular text messages to alert her of delivery times.
Safety of deliveries is a top concern. Volunteers wear gloves and masks and wipe down packages with disinfectant to prevent the spread of infection, according to Pai and Casertano. In addition, volunteers must sign a document confirming that they have had no symptoms of illness and have not been exposed to anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 in the previous two weeks.
"They're all just teens but they're really very conscientious and care about the community a lot,” Verble says of the volunteers.
Verble's husband, Gharemon Suleymon, 71, has been impressed with the teens’ willingness to help vulnerable adults. “It's very inspiring to see their level of dedication and humility,” he says.
Casertano says the organization's work is far from over. “There are a lot of people who are still scared for their own safety,” he says.
Teens Helping Seniors also hopes to expand services to include assistance for wounded veterans, as well as Alzheimer's and dementia patients, and other at-risk groups. The goal is to continue services even when COVID-19 exposure is no longer a top concern.
"There are many other vulnerable groups … that need to be catered to,” Casertano says, “even after the pandemic.”
Find out more
To find a chapter of Teens Helping Seniors, visit the organization's website and go to the section marked “select your community from below.” After locating a chapter, seniors can email organizers with their address and information about what services they are interested in to begin scheduling deliveries.