New ride services offer transportation options for seniors

Transportation is a big issue for older people. Take Carole Howard for example. She lives in the city's North Side Lincoln Park neighborhood and hasn't owned a car in a long time because she suffers from fibroneuralgia and can't drive. She uses a walker and relies mostly on public transportation to get around. But the number of buses on her route have been cut and the buses are crowded. So it's hard for Howard to get on the bus with her walker. She was even injured not long ago while sitting on the bus when it took a curve too fast and she got hit in the knee by another rider's wheelchair.

But Howard's life, and mobility, improved dramatically when she joined Lincoln Park Village. It is a community program, or what's called an intentional community.

The village provides services, including transportation, to seniors in Lincoln Park. Volunteer drivers from the neighborhood take Howard where she wants to go whenever she wants.

Drivers have given Howard rides to doctor's appointments and to events hosted by Lincoln Park Village for its members. But Howard gets something more than a ride.

She also receives companionship from the volunteer driver. Sometimes the driver escorts Howard to her door, or waits for her while she shops, or until her doctor's appointment is finished. One volunteer even walked with Howard through the Lincoln Park Zoo to see the holiday "ZooLights" show. "The rides have been fantastic," says Howard. "It's been such a boost to my morale."

Getting around obstacles

It's hard to know how many older people lack good transportation. But it is a growing problem.

Public transportation is not always available, and, as in Howard's case, may not be suitable for someone who is frail. Ride services through state programs and social service agencies offer some help. But the service can be spotty or not always available when a senior has to go somewhere. A lack of transportation can lead to isolation, a huge problem for the elderly.

Also, many older people live in the suburbs where fewer transportation options exist. About 90 percent of all trips taken by people over age 65 are in a car, according to the Independent Transportation Network of America (ITN America). It is in the process of establishing a nationwide program to provide rides for seniors with donated cars.People generally outlive their ability to drive by about 10 years, according to Katherine Freund, founder and president of ITN America, Portland, Maine. "We've added 30 years to the human lifespan over the last 50 years," says Freund. "But we are outliving our ability to get around."

Under the ITN program, people donate their cars to ITN which then uses the cars to give rides to seniors. Seniors receive ride credits for their donation. Seniors can also volunteer as a driver to build credits that can be used at a later date for rides.

ITN currently has 17 affiliates in 13 states. The City of Chicago is working to establish a local ITN network, which would first serve the northwest side of the city."It's something that senior citizens here deserve," says Joyce Gallagher, executive director of the Area Agency on Aging in the city's Department of Family and Support Services.

Gallagher hopes the local network will be up and running soon. But first an insurance law needs to be changed to cover volunteer drivers. A bill to make that change will probably be introduced to the state legislature soon.

'Realistic' transportation

Just across the state border, an ITN office has been opened in Racine County, Wis.

The office expects to start providing rides to seniors in mid-February.

"This is the most realistic form of transportation for our area," says Chris Reuwer, transportation services coordinator of Racine County. He explains that the county's public transportation is mostly limited to the eastern portion of the county. Seniors are also reluctant to use public transportation even if it's available.

The ITN model creates more transportation options," says Reuwer. And he especially likes the fact that the ITN system has no restrictions. Seniors can get rides any hour of the day and for any purpose. No one questions requests, even if it's for a ride to the ice cream stand on a summer afternoon.

"It's almost like having a car in your driveway," says Reuwer.

North Shore Village is an intentional community that provides rides to its members who live in Evanston and Wilmette. Members pay an annual fee and get services in return. Many members also volunteer for the village, some times driving other members to appointments and social events.

"We've seen an uptick in the number of ride requests," says Helen Gagel, executive director of North Shore Village. "It is one of our most requested services." The village has 25 volunteer drivers. When a ride request comes in to the main office, an e-mail goes out to the volunteer drivers. Riders are requested to provide 48 hours notice, though rides with short notice are also provided. Volunteer drivers are interviewed and undergo a background check.

Riders don't pay for the rides. Their village membership dues cover the cost. Drivers don't receive a tip either, though riders are asked to pay for parking, if necessary. If a rider is at a doctor's appointment, the driver can wait or come back later.

A village member recently fell on the ice and broke her arm. She needed a ride to the hospital and a volunteer driver not only provided a ride, but also helped the woman into the car.

"This kind of service is more personal and safer than other forms of transportation," says Gagel.

Personal service

That personal touch is what makes many say the ride service is so great. Lincoln Park Village has 30 volunteer drivers.

"Rides are our No. 1 requested service," says Dianne Campbell, executive director at Lincoln Park Village. She explained that the ride service is especially helpful for evening social events that a senior might not attend if he or she didn't have a ride.

"People get to participate," says Campbell.

Lincoln Park Village member Howard agrees. As a member, she gets rides where she needs to go and also to fun social events.

"I am lucky I found Lincoln Park Village," she says.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad