Matt Dionne squatted to read the labels on the cans of tuna. Small cans packed in vegetable oil, large cans packed in water.
For the past two months, Dionne has shopped for an elderly woman through Wethersfield’s Friendly Shoppers program, which pairs volunteers like him with senior citizens unable to drive to the store, carry groceries into their homes or otherwise get the food they need.
Once a week, the woman hands Dionne a 10-item handwritten list he now knows nearly by heart. He scours a Rocky Hill Stop & Shop for hamburger, margarine, a small birthday cake, and tracks down a manager to ask about the small water-packed tuna cans, who tells him they’re out but expecting a shipment tomorrow.
Dionne tries to think about elderly people’s tastes and health needs.
“I shop for them how I’d want to be shopped for,” he said, shrugging. “The golden rule.”
Dionne’s client is one of 40 Wethersfield seniors enrolled in Friendly Shoppers. Residents 60 and older qualify for the program; according to the U.S. Census’ 2015 American Community Survey, 27 percent of Wethersfield’s population is eligible.
Wethersfield’s share of elderly residents is high, but not much higher than the statewide figure — around 21 percent, according to the same survey.
Friendly Shoppers is one of 14 programs statewide that draw on volunteers to deliver groceries to the elderly or disabled. In Farmington, about 40 elderly residents rely on a similar volunteer program for their weekly groceries.
“Especially during the winter, it’s really hard to get out,” said Nancy Walker, Farmington’s director of elderly services. “And it’s hard to take the Dial-A-Ride or call a taxi just to go to the store.”
For some of the older folks, she added, the shopping excursions offer a rare opportunity to socialize.
Though delivery services like Peapod and Amazon Fresh have become popular with younger people, those online-based systems can be confusing, inaccessible or unaffordable for seniors.
“Many of them don’t have computers so they can’t use Peapod,” said Barbara Roberts, volunteer coordinator for West Hartford’s social services, “and some of our clients can’t afford the delivery service. So this program is really valuable to them.”
West Hartford volunteers also deliver bags from the town’s food pantry to people who are elderly, disabled or recovering from surgeries, Roberts added.
For Dionne, a Wethersfield resident and father of three, his involvement in Friendly Shoppers started with a volunteer requirement — 70 hours per semester — for his coursework at Central Connecticut State University, where he’s studying to become a social worker.
In September, he also started helping out with Wethersfield’s produce distributions, which were started that month with funds raised from the Wethersfield Mayor’s Charity Ball. On Friday morning, Dionne was one of four volunteers passing out bags of mangoes, oranges, tomatoes, limes and kiwis to about 80 elderly low-income residents.
“These are the people that need this food the most,” said Chris Taylor, Wethersfield’s director of elderly services. “The price of fruit and vegetables keeps going up, and seniors are often on a fixed income. But they need those fruits and vegetables to stay healthy as much as us.”
Peter Pettis, 70, called the 3-month-old program “a blessing.” He also accepted canned and dry goods from Foodshare volunteers, who were passing out rice, beans, cereal and milk alongside the produce giveaway.
“There’s been days when I’ve been down to almost nothing, and this has really been a lifesaver,” Pettis said. “It really has.”
Dionne also volunteers at the senior center’s Community Cafe, where he serves Wethersfield’s elderly residents lunch and coffee twice a week.
“They’ve got a great life to tell — a lot of wisdom and experience to share,” Dionne said. “Not many people get to hear that type of stuff, because they don’t take the time to listen.”
But not all of the seniors he’s met are so voluble, he said, and his Friendly Shoppers client is “very private.”
“I try not to butt in,” he said. He meets her at her house once a week, picks up her list before heading to Stop & Shop. Dionne, whose first job was at a Glastonbury Stop & Shop when he was 16, knows its aisles like a librarian knows the shelves. He’s in and out in 20 minutes.
He delivers the groceries to her house, places them in her cupboard and refrigerator. The whole operation takes about an hour — no big deal, Dionne says. He knows she appreciates it. But as he’s getting into the car, he turns and says: “For me, it’s a sense of joy I guess.”