Last spring, mere months into the coronavirus pandemic’s brutal siege across the country, a new storefront sprung up on the corner of Willow Tree Plaza on the Golden Mile.
Inside, it can almost be mistaken for any old department store. Its shelves are lined with delicate china tea kettles, strappy dress shoes and earrings, and its floor is a maze of hangers crowded with dresses, slacks and blouses. Take a look at a price tag, though, and that perception will be quickly dashed — on Monday, a floor-length prom dress was on sale for $6.
Even beyond its low prices, however, there is something else unique about the boutique run by Frederick County’s Partners in Care. Every cent it brings in goes toward supporting the nonprofit’s long-standing mission of helping elders in the county remain connected to the community while maintaining their independence.
For more than a decade, Partners in Care has provided transportation, small home repairs and a social network to county residents ages 60 and older.
“It’s a tremendous mission,” said Bud Otis, a former County Council president who now serves as business development director for Partner in Care’s Frederick location. “We need to honor the seniors who led the way before us.”
Now, with the end of the pandemic-triggered state of emergency in Maryland in sight, Otis and the nonprofit’s more than 300 members are hoping that its boutique will gain an even broader customer base, allowing Partners in Care to extend its reach in the community and expand the number of seniors it serves. Already, according to a pamphlet provided by the nonprofit, sales from the boutique cover about 40 percent of costs associated with the organization’s programming.
The last year and a half has been a “disaster” for seniors in the community, Otis said. Already a population vulnerable to feelings of loneliness, elders across the country became only more isolated during the pandemic as they took shelter for their own safety. Research has shown that chronic loneliness can worsen elders’ memories and cause declines in their mental and physical health.
Though senior isolation is an issue that every community in Maryland grapples with, Frederick’s position as the largest county by landmass in the state offers unique challenges to those who work with this population. Currently, transportation represents 80 percent of the services offered by the county’s Partners in Care, said Hongwei Xu, site director for the organization’s Frederick location. Many elders living in more remote small towns like Thurmont and Emmitsburg need assistance travelling to the city.
The number of seniors living in the county is expected to grow over time. According to a 2013 report from the county, by 2030, this population is expected to more than double, reaching more than 77,000.
Under the service-exchange model of Partners in Care, however, seniors are able to give back to the nonprofit while also benefiting from its services. They can receive credits by donating items to the boutique or volunteering their time, which they can later redeem for home repairs or a ride to their doctor’s office.
“Seniors who may not have family here, they’re really lonesome,” Otis said. “And this gives them something to do and get out and stay active.”
“You got to keep this going,” he added, tapping his head. “If you don’t, one out of five is going to have dementia. And so we’ve got to keep them busy, so they can stay at home and save the county money and the state and the government.”
Otis and Xu are excited about the opportunities the boutique will present for the nonprofit. Partners in Care relocated to the space in Willow Tree Plaza close to the beginning of last year; the organization’s office is located to the right of the boutique, and it hosts monthly craft tutorials at the conference table tucked away in a corner to the left of the shop.
On Monday, a table in the boutique was filled with little crocheted hats, candles and other knick-knacks made by Partners in Care members that customers can now purchase. Xu smiled at the items displayed in front of her. She’s been trying to get to know each member personally, she said. So far, the volunteers have taught her so much.
“We’re all part of the community, and we just help each other. That’s exactly what Partners in Care is about,” she said. “Neighbors helping neighbors.”
Correction: Several photo cutlines have been updated to correct Bud Otis' title. He is the business development director.