Senior transportation a critical need

AP News
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Posted: Nov 06, 2009 4:06 PM

When senior citizens finally surrender the car keys, they don't have to lose their independence.

Efficient transportation services can help local economies by allowing seniors to remain mobile consumers and stay socially active. It helps seniors age-in-place rather than be forced into a nursing home.

From discounts on public buses, to volunteer services that pick up clients at their front door, seniors who don't drive anymore can get a ride to see the doctor, buy groceries or go to work. Seniors with low-incomes, health issues, or disabilities _ the neediest cross-section _ don't have to rely on busy relatives for transportation.

But state and local budget cuts have reduced services and increased fares in some areas. In Prince William County, Va., for example, the government cut funding for senior transportation from $250,000 to less than $100,000. That forced the Area Agency on Aging to eliminate five drivers and sell six vans that shuttled older adults to senior centers.

At the same time, federal funding isn't keeping pace with rising demand. An estimated 20 percent of the population will be 65 or older by the year 2030. And experts worry there won't be enough accessible, affordable, and safe transportation for older adults.

The call is clear: America needs more routes, more vehicles, and more volunteer drivers.

"This country needs to take a hard look at transportation in the context of how our country is aging," says Josefina Carbonell, a former assistant secretary for aging for the Health and Human Services Department.

Public transit cutbacks have put more stress on nonprofit groups that offer ride services that let the senior make an appointment to get picked up at their door, driven to the pharmacy or the shopping mall, and returned home.

The Knox County-Knoxville Community Action Committee in Tennessee makes more than 900 trips a day in wheelchair-accessible minibuses and work with taxi drivers to make them senior-friendly. The organization's $4 million yearly budget is barely enough, says Barbara Monty, the committee's director.

"We're still a long way from what I consider to be meeting the real needs of the community," she says. "I'm very concerned about the future and the growth" in the number of seniors.

The committee also wants to use hybrid sedans driven by volunteers who go inside the house and escort the senior to the vehicles. And, on Thanksgiving, they'll pick up grandpa at the nursing home and bring him home for dinner.

Once seniors stop driving they can begin feeling inactive and alone, which can hasten depression or death. On any single day, more than half of people 65 and older who no longer drive find themselves stuck at home and unable to get where they want to go, AARP reports.

Last year, senior transportation services made more than 30 million trips costing from $7 to nearly $11 dollars each, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging. In all, these trips cost $220 million.

About one third of that money came from the Older Americans Act, which funds Area Agencies on Aging to contract out senior transportation services.

This year, the Older Americans Act provided $361 million for aging programs, including transportation, up about $10 million from 2006.

That increase is insufficient, according to a report by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. Roughly 8 million older adults helped by the Act will suffer if funding stays static amid rising operating costs, the report said.

More than half of Area Agencies on Aging reported an increase in the number of seniors on waiting lists, yet more than half also reported cuts to services last year. About three-fourths of the agencies said it was difficult to retain volunteers because of rising fuel costs.

Access to transportation also is a concern. About one-quarter of the elderly population lives in rural areas, but only 14 percent have any kind of public transportation within a half-mile, according to the National Center on Senior Transportation.

There's also an increasing demand for wheelchair-accessible vehicles, while budget cuts are limiting some routes and eliminating others, said Virginia Dize, the center's assistant director.

To address these issues, the senior transportation center is soliciting public comment through Nov. 13 about the United We Ride program at http://www.uwrdialogue.org. The program's goal is to make transportation more accessible and fill in gaps in transit systems.

"It's vitally important that seniors be able to connect with their community," Dize said.

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On the Net:

National Center on Senior Transportation: http://seniortransportation.easterseals.com/

Dialogue on United We Ride program: http://www.uwrdialogue.org

AARP's State-by-State Guide to Transportation Assistance: http://bulletin.aarp.org/yourworld/gettingaround/articles/state-by-state(underscore)guide.html