Enid is 82. She's a widow and suffers from painful osteo-arthritis in her knees, meaning that getting out and about can be a real trial. With her only son living in another part of the country, life for Enid is lonely. In fact, there are some weeks when her trip to the local convenience store is the only contact that she gets with another person. And she's not alone. According to a survey for charity Help the Aged, more than one million of the UK's elderly people live alone, and nearly half a million pensioners leave their houses only once a week.

Worse still is the fact that when elderly people do brave the outside world, with its dwindling rural bus routes, uneven pavements and badly lit streets, they are often met with poor service and a lack of understanding from the community.

Amy Swan, policy manager at charity Help the Aged, says: "A community thrives when everyone is included, yet a quarter of older people feel their neighbourhood has changed for the worse in the past 10 years. Simple things such as going out to buy a pint of milk have become impossible for many older people."

The good news is that there is a lot that can be done to help remedy the situation, and Swan believes that convenience stores are ideally placed to help. "It's the little things that able-bodied people don't consider that can be make or break for older people, yet these things can be so easy to rectify," she says.

Simple things such as lower shelving and ensuring that your aisles are clear and wide enough for a wheelchair user or a walking aid to pass can make a world of difference to an older person, she says. Larger price labels and brighter lighting can also be a huge help. "One retailer I know keeps magnifying glasses on the shelves so that people with poor eyesight can read the labels and ingredients list on products," she adds.

If you have the space, a chair by the till area would also be appreciated by people who have difficulty standing for long periods of time.

And let's not forget the variety of easy grip and wheelie baskets which are now available to retailers.

Independent retailer Nigel Dowdney goes one better - he has been known to carry the baskets of elderly customers around his Redorange store in Stalham, Norfolk. "I've even driven some of them home after their shop," he says. "It's a small thing on my part, but it means so much to them."

A growing number of retailers are now offering a home delivery service for their elderly shoppers and Swan hopes that this is something which more retailers will consider.

Charles Brading, who owns and runs Vic's Stores on the Isle of Wight with his partner Linda, is in the process of establishing a comprehensive web-based home delivery service for his customers. Once the website is up and running, shoppers will simply have to log on and place their order, which the family will deliver in their branded 4x4. The Bradings have been running a simpler phone ordering service for a few years, which Linda says has been well received by the island's older and disabled shoppers. "The deliveries mean so much to our customers; it's a real lifeline for some," she says.

Another way in which retailers can help older customers is by making their toilets available for public use. At least 10 towns in the UK run Community Toilet Schemes, but with the number of public conveniences currently in freefall, many more are required. Businesses participating in Community Toilet schemes are paid a small annual fee by their council of £800-£1,000 to help with maintenance.

Now there are obvious reasons why some retailers might find the thought of lending their lavvy to Joe Public rather unsavoury; there's the cleaning and monitoring to start with, and let's not forget the fact that most store toilets are accessed via the stockroom, raising all kinds of health and safety and security issues.

However, on the other side of the coin is the fact that the growing lack of public conveniences is forcing many elderly people to stay in, or go to extreme lengths to avoid embarrassment when they are out and about. Help the Aged's Swan adds: "Help the Aged has heard stories of older people not drinking so that they won't need to go to the toilet, or carrying a water jug just in case they need it."

Clearly, this is wrong, and anything that can be done to give older people the confidence to venture out can only be a good thing for the community as a whole. "If you can help by opening up your toilet for public use or laying on a delivery service, that's great, but if you can't, there's a world of small things that retailers can do to help," adds Dowdney. "Just a simple 'hello, how are you?' can make a huge difference to an elderly person, and it won't cost you a penny."

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