Dr. Eleanor Barbera

A few months ago, I was consulting at the Margaret Tietz Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Jamaica, NY, when a remarkable woman named Trudy Schwarz walked down the hall. Her noteworthy qualities were obvious in several ways.

A diminutive woman, she nevertheless was pushing a sizable rolling metal cart filled with all manner of neatly arranged goods. This was despite being as old or older than many of the residents at the facility.

She exuded a calm, pleasant demeanor enhanced by her smile and her peach-colored lab coat as she purveyed merchandise from what I’ve previously termed an “independence cart,” an essential yet rare enterprise in long-term care.

“Trudy’s here!” exclaimed the resident I’d been speaking with, excusing herself for a moment to exchange a few dollars for a bottle of lotion. “She buys me the things I can’t get here. She’s a real lifesaver.” 

It was a sentiment I heard echoed by many other residents over the next few months.

Overcoming systems failure

An “independence cart” is a small store on wheels that brings goods to residents. While many residents have personal needs allowances and therefore a small amount of money for purchases, it’s virtually impossible for many frail elderly to spend it due to a systems failure within long-term care communities.

Residents generally have no access to a store unless it’s one that visits their facility or they’re physically able to go off-campus with a family member or as part of a staffed excursion. Social workers are usually too inundated with other tasks to assist with online purchases and most residents don’t have access to a credit card, debit card or PayPal account necessary for web-based transactions anyway. Residents without family members to make purchases on their behalf are left to ask for help from staff members who sometimes assist them out of kindness — but against facility policy.

The psychological impact

Emotionally, this takes a toll on residents. Not being able to obtain an item that’s been a favorite for 60 years can lead to frustration and an added sense of loss. Many elders feel humiliated asking staff members to shop for them, feeling like they’re begging for assistance.

This situation unnecessarily adds to the residents’ sense of helplessness and dependence. In addition, it sometimes results in conflicts with staff members, who may not always be able to run errands or may take a fee for their services.

A mobile store removes these obstacles, gives residents some independence and can allow them to retain cherished roles in life, such as through the purchase of stationery and stamps for correspondence or a gift for a family member.

Interview with Trudy Schwarz

I spoke with Trudy about her experiences as a volunteer running the “shopping cart,” as she calls it.

Dr. El: How long have you been volunteering at MTC?

TS: 30 years. First I was on the board and then I took over the shopping cart from another woman who sold mostly Hershey bars and some cookies. I added and added and before I knew it, it’s a supermarket!

EFB: Why at MTC?

TS: My mother was a resident here for five years and I used to visit her frequently. 

EFB: Why do you volunteer?

TS: I’ve been so fortunate all my life that I really feel I have to do something to give back. I got safely out of Germany. I have lovely children and grandchildren and good health. Sure, I’ve had troubles, but for the most part, I’ve been very fortunate.

EFB: What do you find most gratifying about your experience as a volunteer?

TS: Visiting and talking with the people. I had a career as a physical therapist but really I’m a social worker at heart.

EFB: How old are you?

TS: 96

EFB: What are the most popular items you sell?

TS: Chocolate, cookies, lotion, soap, body wash, deodorant, unsalted potato chips. I also take special orders, like I used to get stamps and cards for one woman and once someone asked me to get 5 x 9 frames for photos of her grandchildren.

EFB: How long does it take you to buy all these items?

TS: I spend several days shopping because I try to get things on sale. I have a special form so that I don’t have to pay tax. That way I can give people the best rate. I don’t make money from this as a volunteer.

EFB: What do your children and grandchildren think about your work?

TS: They’re happy because they know it gives me an incentive in life. My parents were always socially minded. They liked to serve.

EFB: I understand you’re retiring at the end of May. Do you have any advice for others who might be interested in doing this work either at MTC or another facility?

TS: I think it’s a great thing to do for the residents. The main purpose is to give them some autonomy, although some people just window shop. It doesn’t have to be on such a big scale.

Individuals interested in following in Trudy’s footsteps at the Margaret Tietz Center in Jamaica, NY, should contact Linda Spiegel at [email protected] or (718) 298-7800.

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, PhD, author of The Savvy Resident’s Guide, is a 2014 Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is the Gold Medalist in the Blog-How To/Tips/Service category of the 2014 American Society of Business Publication Editors Midwest Regional competition. A speaker and consultant with nearly 20 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care, she maintains her own award-winning website at MyBetterNursingHome.com.