When the Shopping Mall Meets the Nursing Home

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“Oh, I really used to love to shop,” says Marnie Stuart. “I’d get all dressed up in the morning and head out, and stay at it all day long. Sometimes, I’d come home and then regret not getting some item or another — and I’d go right back that afternoon and get it.”

But Stuart, now 91 and living in a New York nursing home for nearly three years, has few opportunities to shop these days. Even if she did, others keep a tight watch on her purse strings. Her remaining funds are mostly guarded in an account in her home facility; her daughter has to transfer money into it to cover purchases.

While there are twice-weekly Bingo games at her facility at which lucky residents stand to win a quarter a game and use the proceeds in the lobby’s vending machine, that’s not the kind of shopping that beckons to Stuart. “Besides,” she sniffs. “I’m not really the Bingo-playing type.”

And so when she recently spotted a flyer in the hallway outside her door announcing there would be a store set up for a day, offering clothing and other necessities right there in her nursing home, it felt like a godsend.

“I really need a little something I can throw on in the morning over my nightgown in case I need to meet anyone at the door,” Stuart said. And she stuck to that need, even though her visiting daughter gently reminded her there were several robes hanging in the closet at the foot of her bed — two of them not even worn yet.

It wasn’t about needing to own a little something; it was about the need to do something that used to fill her days with happiness and help her pass the time. It was about the pleasure she took in perusing and choosing her own items, deciding on her own what might be a good fit. And with the holidays looming, as indicated by the tiny reindeer and menorah displays now crowding the entranceway to the nursing home, she could also snag some gifts for her kids and grandchildren.

Enter the Shopper Service

When the promised shopping day arrived, Stuart wanted to dress up for the occasion a bit — asking an aide to help her choose a scarf and attach the earrings she rarely bothered wearing anymore.

By 10 a.m., the stealthy associates at Resident Shoppers Service had already transformed the communal dining room down the hall. The four-place “restaurant-style” tables had vanished, replaced by rack after rack of T-shirts, pants, sweaters, dusters, and nightwear. Long tables were piled high with hats, socks, shawls, ponchos, and underwear. One corner had been transformed into an ersatz shoe store — with boxes filled with various types of slippers, sneakers, and soft canvas shoes with Velcro closings.

Most items seemed reasonably priced or even inexpensive. It was a paradise brought from the outside to the inside. The room soon filled with curious residents, some leaning heavily on walkers, some in wheelchairs being pushed by attendants, some slowly filtering past the goods on their own volition.

While it was Stuart’s first experience with such a mobile store, the Resident Shoppers Service has been in business for about 44 years. It began in 1974, when Mary Ann Rosen, known for her generous volunteer service in the area’s nursing homes, came up with the idea of a “department store on wheels.” The idea likely germinated as she supported her husband, Robert Rosen, who had cultivated a successful department store, Rosen’s, in upstate Rome, New York. Throughout the years, the couple set up their traveling shop in more than 300 nursing homes throughout New York state.

After both Rosens died — Mary Ann in 2011 and Robert three years later — their daughter, Lynn Rosen, carried on the business, expanding it to include therapeutic footwear among its clothing offerings.

Treasures Uncovered

On that shopping day, Stuart bypassed her usual early afternoon nap — perusing the racks and tables, rolling her eyes and exclaiming at the sweatshirts adorned with cats and dogs (“That’s not me!”), eschewing anything in purple or lavender with a robust “Nooooooo!”

She happily surveyed the items she’d snagged for herself — two pair of cotton slacks that would be easy to pull on and off, a bright red cardigan that would be perfect for the holidays, a peach cabled one in cotton knit that looked wide but that the shopping assistants assured her would shrink in the hot water used in the nursing home’s laundry service, and a “one size fits all” shawl with pockets — which she quickly assessed as that perfect little something to throw on in the morning.

Resident Shopping Service clerks were able to cover the purchases with the funds in her nursing home account. Before being brought to her room, they told her they would label her purchases with her name as some assurance that they wouldn’t mistakenly end up in another resident’s closet.

She scored some gifts for others, too: T-shirts for her son and grandson, an eternity scarf for her daughter-in-law, a jaunty black top with sparkly silver threads through it for her aide, who “likes glitzy things.”

There was also something new on her face: a smile.

“I can’t remember when I’ve had so much fun,” she said.

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