Tips & Tricks for Illness Management

Grocery Store: Arch Nemesis of the Chronically Ill

I have found it is the consensus there is not much worse for the chronically ill person than the grocery store. This especially true for those such as myself who are orthostatically challenged. It involves a lot of standing and few places to sit. It’s busy, bright, loud, and even sometimes confusing. You cannot generally easily leave on a whim if you start to feel sick. We tend to have brain fog, so we are likely to find ourselves running from aisle 1 to aisle 9 and back to aisle 1 again for something we forgot. It is no fun. Here is my gift to you:

Jackie’s Guide to Surviving the Store

  • First of all. Do you REALLY need to go right now? Is now the only time? It is annoying to not be able to just run to the store for an ingredient or two for dinner, but it is what it is, so you need to work with it. If you’re about to run out to the store for just an item or two, try and think if there is any possible way you could put it off until another day when you actually planned and allotted energy for the store. Is there a friend or family member stopping by? One of them who is always asking you what they can do to help? Here is their big chance! Ask them if they could stop by the store and grab you a few things.

Okay, so you’ve decided you need to go to the store…

  • Park near the cart rally so you don’t have to choose between walking extra or being the jerk who leaves their cart out loose in the lot.
  • If you’re just running in for a few things, you will eye those baskets by the door. You think, “how convenient, I’ll just grab a basket so I don’t have to push around a cart.” If you actually manage to leave the store without grabbing more items than you came for, this will probably work for you. If there’s a chance you’ll grab more items, GRAB A DARN CART! If you are pretty ill, it is a big enough deal you are walking around in the grocery store. You don’t need to add weight training to that by having a basket instead of a cart when you remember you need a bottle of laundry detergent or a bottle of juice. Carts are good because you can lean on them and, if you want to be crazy, you can sit on them! If you decide you need to sit on the floor, they serve as one of those orange construction cones, preventing people from running you over because you’re sitting in the aisle.
  • Use the motor carts. If there isn’t one by the door you enter through, ask the greeter if he/she could page the other end to check if there are any down there someone could grab for you. I wish I would have used the motor carts sooner! Grocery shopping sitting rather than standing makes a HUGE difference. I don’t get the increase in symptoms that comes with standing 20 minutes to an hour with POTS. The symptoms that come from sitting up this same amount of time are much less severe. Shopping is more enjoyable because I am not in such a rush to get out of the store before I pass out. I can actually look at items more than a few seconds. I forget fewer items because the brain fog doesn’t get as bad as it does when I shop standing. I used to not want to do use one because I thought it was letting the illness “win” and I thought people would look at me funny because I look healthy. You know what makes people look at you funny? Sitting and/or laying on the floor in Walmart because you feel like you are going to pass out. That’s quite a bit stranger than using a motor cart! I found most people either don’t look at me at all (other than to apologize for being in my way) and if they do look at me, they smile or offer to help. Some people do ask about what is wrong with me. I just say, “I have a cardiac condition” even though it is very inaccurate of POTS. It’s easy and people understand it. If they ask more, I correct myself and explain it actually is a disease of the autonomic nervous system that effects my circulation and all that good stuff. Most people take “cardiac condition” as an answer, give me a sympathetic smile, and are on their way. Others, like the Walmart employee the other day, cry and tell me how terrible of a hand I’ve been dealt while I awkwardly stand there with my broken down motor cart. That’s a story for another day.
  • I’ve become a bit of an expert at sitting on the floor in public places. So, you’re being all brave and fancy, walking around the store, enjoying the luxury of backing up without an obnoxious beeping noise alerting everyone to your presence when… OH NO! You need to sit! You look for two things in your aisle to sit in; low traffic and feasibility. My favorite aisles to sit down in are health food aisles, hair dye/product aisles, the aisle with all the face washes, the candy aisle, the breakfast food … Any aisle where there a bunch of products and you can appear to be sitting on the floor comparing and scrutinizing is a good pick. It really doesn’t matter, but I like when people don’t look at me weird. The other day I sat down in the soda aisle in front of a huge display of Pepsi. People looked at me strangely. It had to be obvious to them someone wouldn’t be comparing one 24 pack of Pepsi to another, so they were wondering why I was sitting in their way. I moved over to the breakfast aisle and rested in peace.
  • Healthy people: I love those of you who smile at me, offer to help me, and apologize for being impossible to navigate around in the motor cart. I love those of you who don’t acknowledge me at all. Please keep doing all of these things! Those carts are harder to work than you’d think, so it is much appreciated when you move to the side and don’t look at me like I’ve ruined your life by needing to use the awkward cart and being in your way. Be happy you can move backwards without a loud beeping noise alerting everyone in the next 5 aisles what you’re up to. When your children point at me and say “MOMMY, WHAT’S WRONG WITH HER!?!?” or “MOMMY WHY DOES THAT LADY GET A SCOOTER!?!” don’t worry, I am not embarrassed and they didn’t make me feel bad about myself. Just tell them it is rude to ask that so loudly because some people do care. I’ll smile at them in a “your Mom just yelled at you, but I actually think you’re cute” sort of way, and we will all be on our way. Sometimes (if I choose to do more than just smile) I tell the kids I just can’t stand as long as they can or that if they break their foot someday, maybe they’ll get to use one too.
  • Bring a helper if you can. When my fiancé goes to the store with me, it is so much less stressful! He can get the stuff I can’t reach from the motor cart or heavy items I would need to bend over to grab. If I forget something, he runs back an aisle or two and grabs it for me. The carts on the motor carts are not all that big, so having someone follow you with a regular sized cart to put items in can be helpful. I hope you have someone like him in your life!
  • Make a list. This may sound nutty, but try to make it in the order of the items in the store. Brain fog tends to set in once we with POTS get to the store because of being upright. I used to end up running back and forth all over the store. I wouldn’t remember to turn down a certain aisle or I’d just go right on by an item I needed. When I got sick, I quit the habit my Mom gave me of writing down the items in the order they came in the store. Since I now am back to making my list of items the same order I will come across them in the store, this happens a lot less. I get in and out of the store more quickly and much less aggravated with POTS.
  • Use the internet to research products ahead of time. I have food allergies, so I need to ensure the food I buy doesn’t have egg, soy, dairy, or gluten. This takes some time in the store if you are buying something you’ve never bought before. Save yourself the burden of label reading in the store and look up ingredients in various brands from the comfort of your bed. I just quickly glance to make sure the product ingredients haven’t changed  before putting it in my cart and am on my way.
  • I used to dread the produce section because it was a lot of up and down. Now, I get out of the motor cart and run and gather all of the fruits and vegetables then toss them in my cart. I then grab a bunch of the plastic produce bags and sit down while I bag all of the produce. I suppose just using a tote bag would be more “green” and even less work, but I like my plastic bags – sorry Mother Earth.
  • If in the middle of shopping, you realize you simply cannot continue shopping, it is okay! You don’t have to get everything on your list. It’s not worth making yourself sick. If you can check out what you’ve selected so far, great! If not, just leave your cart and let an an employee know on the way out so they can put the items back. They really don’t mind and appreciate you notifying them you’re abandoning the cart rather than leaving frozen food there to spoil.
  • If you chose to use a cart, standing in line to checkout is horrible! Do counter maneuvers to offset standing in one spot for so long. Moving your legs will help circulation and make standing there a little easier. Crossing your legs can also help. Sometimes, if I need a rest but don’t want to sit, I just squat. I pretend to be checking out the magazines or candy. A lot of times by this point in the store, I am so sick I don’t care what anyone thinks and I just close my eyes.
  • Load the items onto the conveyor belt by where they will go once you get them home. Put cold items together, canned items together etc… This will help save you some standing time once you are home. I also like to identify items that can be left in my car for a few hours once I get home if I am too sick to make multiple trips from the car into the house.
  • If it is an especially rough day, ask the cashier if he/she could page someone to help you get your groceries into your car. They will load your car and take the cart for you. Don’t feel weak or guilty, these people are getting paid to help customers as needed!
  • Despite what the sign on the cart says, they will not usually stop you if you choose to exit the store in the motor cart. No alarms will go off and they will not call the police… However, you do risk getting chased down and lectured by an elderly greeter who thinks you’re a no-good-punk-kid. (They quickly leave you alone when you inform them you’d love to walk to your car but you don’t want to pass out.) Also, you cannot leave the electric cart outside in the parking lot and it is a hassle to bring it back in. At the door, I transfer items from the motor cart into a regular cart for the walk to my car. If there is an empty cart near the checkout, I have the bagger put my bags in it to save this step!
  • Leave really big reusable bags in your trunk. Load the bags of groceries into them as you empty your cart in the parking lot. This will make it take fewer trips to get them inside once you get home.

Well there you have it. I still leave the store fatigued, foggy, and in pain, but less so than before I began using all of these tricks — especially the motor cart. What are your least favorite parts of going to the grocery store? What are your grocery store tricks?

18 thoughts on “Grocery Store: Arch Nemesis of the Chronically Ill

  1. Oh wow. This post was amazing. I hate that grocery stores are noisy and there’s people moving around everywhere. I seems to make things worse. I like the sitting in the aisle tricks. Maybe I’ll try that next time, but unfortunately sitting doesn’t seem to help much. I actually have to lie down. My only trick is going during the week in the middle of the day, or right before closing time, when it’s less crowded. Thanks for the tips and the laughs.

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    1. Thanks! I agree timing is a big part of having an easier time. I’ve thought of going grocery shopping at like 2 AM to REALLY avoid other people, but that is too extreme, even for me! Laying is ideal. I’ve only felt bad enough to lay on the grocery store floor two times. Gross!! Propping up my feet and leaning back helps simulate laying a tiny bit.

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  2. I get my groceries delivered. We do have to do the Costco trip once a month but I tend to know that day will be a write-off.
    Back in the days when I was trying to avoid the wheelchair I used the shopping cart as a zimmer frame. Same with the kid’s pram or buggy.
    btw over this side of the pond a lot of shops now have complimentary wheelchairs you can borrow to get around the shop. Having someone with you to shove and perhaps phoning ahead to have them keep a chair on side for you might be a way to go.

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  3. What really bothers me about the supermarkets is the layout, most of the things I want are on the bottom shelves so I have to bend down to get them, I’ve had a few tachycardia episodes start that way, the lighting is awful too and the longer I’m stuck there the more nauseous it makes me feel. I generally buy non perishables in bulk and just pick up the fresh once a week or so. We have online shopping through the major chains here, I’ve set up an account but I haven’t tried it yet.

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  4. I get all of my frozen stuff for the month through Schwan’s and usually only go to the grocery store every other week for the other stuff. I buy a large variety of fruits and veggies and eat what will perishes faster first and the heartier sustaining stuff after that. I also always have some frozen or canned fruit/veggies as my back up if I run out of the fresh stuff before I’m going shopping again.

    I’m glad (but not glad) I’m not the only one that sits wherever I need to. Not fair that we have to do this, but at least we’re not alone. And I totally agree that the checkout is the worst part! After all the shopping the last thing I want to do is stand there like a zombie leaning on everything so I don’t sit down.

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  5. Jackie, this post was so helpful. I am a young looking 43 year old and I can get a few looks myself. It doesn’t make sense that someone young could have mobility problems..,especially when I’m not in a wheelchair. I usually get my husband to do the shopping and usually go to smaller shops to do my shopping and pick up those few items rather than tackling the big supermarket. I usually use a basket instead of the trolley so I should take better care of myself. Best wishes,
    Ro

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    1. Thanks! I’ve found those people looking at us tend to actually be thinking, “She is so young, it is sad she has to use a wheelchair” but because we are so used to being questioned, we assume they’re judging us.

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  6. You know what would be REALLY embarrasing? If you were in Victorias Secret and your mom parked the wheelchair at the front and then couldn’t see you and told all the sales girls you had a cardiac condition and might be passed out. Then they’d all be frantically trying to find you when you were just squatted down going through the underwear drawer. Now that would be embarrassing.

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