Most of us equate driving with a sense of freedom and independence. As drivers, we’re able to hop into a car and go wherever we want to go, whenever we want to go there. Imagine how radically your life would change if that option were no longer available to you. You might feel trapped, isolated, and no longer in control. That’s what many older adults go through when they lose their ability to drive, and it’s why the need for alternatives for senior transportation becomes so important.
The Community Transportation Association of America confirms that transportation is often one of the greatest challenges for older adults and their families, putting the number of older Americans who depend on others for their mobility at 26 million.
“Older adults need transportation for daily living activities—errands, shopping, community activities including volunteer work, recreation, entertainment, visiting friends and family, and for non-emergency medical transportation,” says Jane Hardin, program specialist with CTAA. Employment transportation also is a growing need among older people, Hardin adds, citing a statistic from the 2017 Transamerica retirement survey of 4,000 adult workers in which half say they plan to work after retirement age.
Loss of Driving Ability
Frequently there is a cognitive or physical impairment that impedes an older adult’s driving ability. “It’s often a progression,” says Hardin, noting that it might start out with an older adult not wanting to deal with traffic anymore. “Then they decide they’re not going to drive on the interstate and they’re not going to drive at night.”
Eventually, safety considerations may make it inadvisable for the older adult to drive at all. Hardin observes that while driving ability may dissipate, the need for social interaction does not. Unfortunately, social isolation is often a sad consequence of the loss of driving ability as seniors find themselves dependent on others for their transportation needs.
It doesn’t have to be that way. As Hardin observes, there are transportation options that seniors can use to get out in the community more often. While it’s helpful for adult children to provide transportation, another way of being helpful is to seek out and identify resources their parents can use to enhance mobility and independence.
Local Community Resources
As an example, Hardin reports, “Eldercare Locator is an excellent resource for learning what transportation for older adults and persons with disabilities is available in your community.”
The National Eldercare Locator program is sponsored by the U.S. Administration on Aging and administered by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. “Simply dial the 800 number (1-800-677-1116) or visit the website and give your zip code,” Hardin advises. “The Eldercare Locator will give you the number of the Eldercare Locator for your community.”
Additional resources are often available from local non-profits and senior centers. In addition, many communities have door-to-door transportation services that are excellent options for seniors. In interviewing Hardin for this post, I mentioned that I knew of one called OATS. Having lived in St. Louis for most of my life, I recall seeing the OATS vans taking older adults around the community. I had always assumed this was a national service, but Hardin who grew up on the other side of Missouri in the Kansas City area, set me straight.
As it turns out, OATS is exclusive to Missouri, serving 87 counties with its fleet of mini-buses, vans and sedans. The group got its start in 1970, when a group of Missourians created a non-profit cooperative service to meet the transportation needs of seniors, especially those in rural areas. What started out as a service for seniors has broadened in scope, and now OATS provides transportation for more than 32,000 people annually.
Public transportation also is a great resource for seniors, but the availability likewise varies from locality to locality. For instance, in Washington, D.C., where Hardin currently lives, the Metro is a viable option for many seniors.
Another option in many large and mid-sized cities is the public bus system. Hardin acknowledges, however, that not everyone likes the bus. “People who have never ridden buses dig in their heels that they’re not going to do it,” Hardin says. “But once they realize they can be more independent—‘I don’t have to call my daughter to get where I’m going’—they become more open to it.”
Many buses accommodate elderly or disabled riders, Hardin observes, with low-floor or low-entry features for those who use wheelchairs or walkers or otherwise have difficulty with steps.
Senior Rideshare Programs
One major trend that has the potential of greatly enhancing senior mobility is the emergence of ridesharing options like Lyft and Uber. These two rideshare leaders have recently announced programs with seniors in mind.
Lyft has teamed up with technology company Great Call, makers of the Jitterbug phone for the senior market, to provide on-demand and scheduled rides for older adults even if they don’t have a smartphone. The program, being rolled out in five pilot markets, allows GreatCall customers to dial a live operator to access Lyft services without the need to download and navigate the Lyft app.
Uber, meanwhile, announced at a recent White House Conference on Aging a pilot program for community-based senior outreach that includes free technology tutorials and free rides at select retirement communities and senior centers. To facilitate the program, Uber is establishing partnerships with local senior advocates, organizations, and municipalities throughout the country.
A Combination of Options
And don’t overlook the option of walking as a great way for seniors to get around while also providing a good opportunity for exercise. It’s a major plus if the community has sidewalks to make walking safer and more convenient, Hardin observes.
Ultimately, it’s not a single option that helps seniors maintain their mobility but a combination of options. “Mobility is a continuum,” Hardin says. “It’s walking, taking the bus, driving, having somebody drive you…All of those things connect, and all of them are important to being a vibrant age-friendly community.”
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