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.
Many older people do not use mass transit, often because of real and perceived obstacles, Ginzler said. The multitude of services can frustrate senior citizens -- and others -- who struggle with bus schedules and multiple transfers. Such obstacles help explain why nearly 90 percent of older residents use private vehicles. Even when an older person decides he can no longer drive, he slides over to the passenger seat, and studies show that older residents will walk before taking public transit, Ginzler said.
In Fairfax, for example, low-income seniors can sign up for Seniors-on-the-Go, which lets riders buy subsidized coupons to pay for taxi fares. Others may qualify for MetroAccess, a paratransit (door-to-door) service sponsored by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for disabled passengers, or FASTRAN, the county-run paratransit. The county also offers a volunteer driving service similar to the Annandale Christian Community for Action's. And there are senior citizen discount rates on almost all public transportation, including Metro and Metrobus.
Grace Starbird, director of Fairfax County's Area Agency on Aging, said one of many initiatives undertaken by the county to enhance transportation for seniors is a proposal for a "one-stop shop" that would coordinate transit services for older residents.
Other governments and nonprofit organizations across the nation have explored strategies to help seniors get around, including implementing new approaches to volunteer driving services, revamping bus lines to make them more flexible and redesigning streets and highways to accommodate older motorists and pedestrians.
In Maine, for example, Katherine Freund, whose 3-year-old son Ryan was hit by an older driver nearly 20 years ago, started a nonprofit organization to help seniors get around. (Her son recovered and now attends the University of Oregon.)
Through Independent Transportation Network and ITNAmerica, which is working to replicate her model across the country, younger volunteer drivers can get credits to receive rides later or donate them to others. Residents who stop driving can donate their cars for credits, and merchants can help pay for rides for older customers.
A similar time-banking program operates in Annapolis, where the city's Transportation Department teamed with Partners in Care, a Pasadena, Md.-based nonprofit that helps seniors stay in their homes.
Partners in Care, which also operates in Frederick, administers a time-banking system so that a person who volunteers to transport an older resident will earn credits that could be used for home repairs.
"There are a whole host of seniors who need help getting out the front door," said Barbara Huston, the organization's co-founder and president. "Our niche is to provide people with arm-to-arm, door-to-door transportation."
Partners in Care started with 125 enrollees; today, there are 4,800. The city promotes the service and pays for background checks of a volunteer's driving record.
Prince William County offers "flex-routing" on its OmniLink bus service, said Christine Rodrigo, spokeswoman for the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission.
The service allows any resident in Manassas, Manassas Park and some parts of the county to schedule a deviation from the regular route of up to 3/4 of a mile. There is a $1 extra charge for riders using the flexible service unless they are older than 60 or disabled.