Umbrella is keeping our 60+ loved ones safe and fed.

By Maggie Seaver
July 16, 2020
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Essential deliveries of all kinds have become fundamental during the coronavirus pandemic, and no one has needed these safe, contact-free delivery options more than older adults who are more susceptible to COVID-19. For people over 60, and especially those with underlying health conditions, going to the grocery store or picking up a prescription has become a serious health risk. 

Thankfully, the demand for essential deliveries during shelter-in-place orders has inspired some amazing initiatives, from individual efforts to help neighbors to the launch of brand new volunteer organizations serving at-risk citizens. And for a company like Umbrella, whose primary mission is to support older adults, meeting the surging demand for grocery, supply, and medicine deliveries during the coronavirus was already in its DNA—it just needed to switch gears. 

Umbrella is a nationwide membership service that connects 60 and older adults in need of help around the house—with errands, repairs, yard work, cleaning—to vetted “neighbors” who can get the job done. At its core, Umbrella is committed to helping older adults age in place; to stay integrated in their communities and homes for as long as possible. It’s “a modern service that makes it a lot easier to stay in your own house and live the life you want to live as you define it,” says Lindsay Ullman, the cofounder and CEO.

As the pandemic’s threat to middle-aged and elderly people became more apparent, the Umbrella team decided to step up and reorient its services to suit the needs of customers. It went right to the source to figure out what exactly those needs were.

“Around the end of February we started calling our customers because we wanted to hear from them and understand what they [were] concerned about,” Ullman says. “Grocery delivery and medication delivery, should it become unsafe to get these things themselves, were really what they worried about.” 

Ullman and her team worked to build the technology to connect people with delivery requests to people who could do the shopping and drop-offs, and updated its vetting processes to create a super focused, mission-oriented workforce. 

“What we didn’t realize was how big that need was going to become,” Ullman says. “Within a matter of weeks we had states coming to us, counties coming to us, mayors coming to us trying to find solutions. Our customers were referring people to us. We decided to open up the platform. We waived the membership and said anyone who is over 60 can use Umbrella to get essential deliveries.”

Many users were requesting their own deliveries, but an increasing number of people were doing so for their older relatives living faraway. Umbrella became the best alternative to being able to help long-distance loved ones. “You can’t be there, but someone can be there for you,” Ullman says.

“I remember a woman in California with an aunt in New Jersey who was running out of food. She’d been frantically calling grocery stores, but all the major online delivery companies were overwhelmed—they didn’t see the pandemic coming either,” Ullman says. “[She saw] a friend post on Facebook about doing deliveries through Umbrella and was able to place a request, get food delivered to her aunt, and that delivery is still happening.”

Umbrella delivery requests exploded, growing 300 percent week over week in March. Waiving the membership and focusing solely on essential deliveries made it possible for anyone across the country to place a request. (And you still can!) Ullman credits the ability to meet the demand to her team’s round-the-clock efforts to reconfigure the platform and also the massive number of volunteers across the country. The outpouring of people who wanted to help was amazing.

“Umbrella became a place where young people and people who weren’t as vulnerable could come and shop for someone else while they were shopping for themselves,” she says. “There have been so many amazing stories through COVID.” 

Customers would write their delivery volunteers poems, leave them flowers at the door, or bake them cookies. Much of the time volunteers would deliver consistently to the same people. “They know each other, they’re passing notes back and forth,” Ullman says. “They’re building socially distant friendships at a time when I think both people need that.”

The service has been a godsend to users like Lorraine in New York, who initially joined Umbrella to help out around the house after her husband had open-heart surgery. She then started receiving grocery deliveries once the pandemic struck. “If [my husband] gets the disease he’s not going to be able to make it, so they’ve done all our grocery shopping,” Lorraine says. “They’ve been wonderful—like angels from heaven, because that’s what you need right now.”

Ullman says Umbrella is slowly and carefully starting to revamp its core services, taking things week by week and in accordance with national and local health guidelines. Requests for outdoor jobs like gardening and essential indoor jobs like installing AC are ticking back up, but not without following safety protocol. The app has built-in health checkpoints to ensure both users and volunteers/workers are symptom-free and following all necessary precautions. They’re also working on ways to support and engage the thousands of volunteers around the country who want to keep helping their communities. (You can volunteer in your hometown here.) 

“For any extended family members who are reading this, we’re operating our grocery deliveries around the country, so people can still place orders,” Ullman says. If you have a loved one who shouldn’t be doing their own shopping right now, and you’re too far away to help, Umbrella can be there to save the day.