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Drive to Keep Going

Betty Lee Thatcher drives Patricia LaRue to an appointment as part of a volunteer door-to-door transportation service. As boomers swell the ranks of senior citizens, governments and nonprofits are addressing the need for such options.
Betty Lee Thatcher drives Patricia LaRue to an appointment as part of a volunteer door-to-door transportation service. As boomers swell the ranks of senior citizens, governments and nonprofits are addressing the need for such options. (Photos By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)

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By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 8, 2007

The ride in Betty Lee Thatcher's snazzy red Volkswagen Beetle was short and uneventful. But it meant everything to Patricia LaRue.

LaRue, who never learned to drive, traveled everywhere by bus, train or Metro, including to her job at the State Department. But since her cancer was diagnosed last year, LaRue has needed a little extra help getting around Northern Virginia.

"I just haven't gotten up the nerve to get on the bus," LaRue, 60, said. "I feel like one of those little wobbly dolls."

LaRue has to rely on friends or volunteers for door-to-door transportation, so she signed up for a ride with the Annandale Christian Community for Action, which coordinates volunteers from 27 Fairfax County churches to ferry senior citizens to medical appointments.

But the organization, which has been around nearly 40 years, is running out of drivers because so many volunteers are too old to drive. Thatcher, who drove LaRue to a doctor's office Tuesday, is 80. LaRue's driver for a follow-up visit is 87.

"I'd say the average age is 89 and rising," said Nancy Hall, president of the group. "The oldest driver retired at the age of 93. We just don't have the younger folks because they work longer. Or maybe they're not as charitably minded. There are people who say that, but I don't agree with that."

With the Jack Kerouac generation already well on the road toward retirement, demographers and experts on aging are urging policymakers to invest in new public transportation options. The shortage of suitable transportation for older residents will become especially acute in the suburbs, not only because transportation there revolves around the automobile, but also because boomers who grew up in the suburbs appear to be staying there.

The number of senior citizens is expected to double by 2030. As that population swells, experts said, so will the need for new ways to get around as more people live well beyond the age when they quit driving. A 2002 study by the National Institute on Aging found that about 600,000 people who are 70 or older stop driving every year and become dependent on other forms of transportation. The study found that men who stopped driving would rely on public or other means of transportation for an average of seven years. Women would need public transportation for 10 years.

A substantial number of older Americans already have difficulty getting where they need to go because they no longer drive. This is true even in areas with a host of transportation options, experts said.

"We have data that show people are stranded," said Elinor Ginzler, AARP's director for livable communities.

More than 20 percent of Americans age 65 or older do not drive. Of those, more than half -- about 3.6 million people -- stay home on any given day because they have no transportation, AARP says. The problem is more pronounced for those who are frail or poor and those who live in rural areas.

Those who cannot get around become isolated, and isolation can have serious consequences on a person's mental and physical well-being. For example, AARP says those who are unable to find transportation make 15 percent fewer trips to the doctor.


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