A Rutgers expert discusses tips for talking to the older adults in your life

Older adults should avoid making trips to the supermarket and instead use curbside pick-up or food delivery based on new data that reinforces guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that in-person grocery shopping during the coronavirus pandemic is risky. 

Leslie M. Kantor, professor and chair of the Department of Urban-Global Public Health at the Rutgers School of Public Health, talks about the new data from Public Health England, the country’s national health service, and explains why even the most independent seniors should avoid grocery shopping at this stage of the pandemic and how to use technology and help from family and friends.

Are older adults at highest risk for death or hospitalization for COVID-19?
Yes. Of the 268,626 Americans who have died from COVID-19 as of today, 31 percent were 85 and older and 27 percent were ages 75 to 84.

Leslie Kantor
Leslie M. Kantor, professor and chair of the Department of Urban-Global Public Health at the Rutgers School of Public Health. Photo: Nick Romanenko

Do we have data that shows that supermarkets are the culprit?
The data from England shows that the most frequent location where people had visited or worked prior to testing positive was a supermarket. Some areas of the United States, like New Mexico, are acknowledging that grocery stores and other retail locations are high-risk for coronavirus exposure. Data from around the U.S. also clearly links COVID-19 exposure to grocery stores. For example, in Riverside, California, 48 outbreaks were tied to grocery stores this summer.  Unfortunately, the poor quality of tracing data around the U.S. has interfered with our ability to accurately track where people became infected.

What shopping alternatives are available for older adults?
There are a number of options: younger, lower-risk family members or friends could do the shopping for the next few months; groceries can be ordered online for curbside pick-up; or groceries can be delivered.

Older adults may find some of these solutions unfamiliar and uncomfortable. But, as with many new innovations, people of all ages learn to adapt. While 18- to 34-year-olds are more likely to use Amazon Prime than older age groups, people 55 and older have recently begun to use the technology. And technology is also adapting for older adults. For example, Instacart created a senior support service and signed up more than 60,000 seniors in a month.

How can I convince the older adults in my life to stay home?
It’s not easy to convince someone to change their life-long habits, but here are some tips for talking to older adults about reducing their risks.

Emphasize that this change isn’t forever. If we can get people through the next few months to the availability of effective vaccines, older adults will once again be able to do most of the activities they wish to do.

Substitute safer activities during the coming months. For example, is there a park where you can take a walk twice a week rather than going to the store? A good reminder is that outside is safer than inside.

Offer to shop online or in person for older relatives and friends.  And since the social aspects of shopping may be a key driver, when you drop off the groceries, wear a mask, stand at least six feet away outside and visit for a few minutes. Or make the weekly discussion about what you are going to buy a chance to have a longer conversation. 


See how Rutgers is making a difference during the COVID-19 crisis.