Keeping senior adults on the go

Advocates seek to fill gaps left by existing transportation services

October 13, 2002|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Frederick and Otha Wobbeking, both 91, relied on their daughter to take them where they needed to go until she passed away suddenly last Thanksgiving.

For a few months, the Catonsville couple made it to the supermarket only when friends could take them and to other places when their grandsons in Ellicott City had time over the weekend. They tried to make essentials last, but sometimes that would not work. "The bread would be so hard, or the milk was sour," Fred Wobbeking recalled.

But now Otha Wobbeking is driven to the store each week by volunteers from the Home Team, a Baltimore County program that provides rides to senior citizens.

That help reflects what advocates for seniors say is a national trend. As growing numbers of older Americans are isolated at home, local governments and community nonprofits across Maryland and elsewhere are working to help them hit the road.

To comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, traditional transit systems use handicapped-accessible vehicles to carry people to and from destinations within three-quarters of a mile of fixed routes. In Maryland, some counties - including Howard, Carroll, Harford, Baltimore and Anne Arundel - supplement that service with free or low-cost programs that carry seniors and the disabled.

But these programs often restrict the destinations to doctors' offices, senior centers or social service agencies. Many operate only during business hours on weekdays. Others will provide service only if seniors can make their way to the curb.

To fill gaps left by such limitations, a Howard transportation group called Transportation Advocates hopes to start a program to assist seniors and others with transportation for shopping, social events and other purposes when traditional services are not available.

The group invited Helen Kerschner, an expert on supplemental transportation programs, to discuss the feasibility of its proposal in the county last week. Group members will meet again this month to consider their options.

Montgomery County is conducting feasibility studies to adapt a supplemental transportation model from Portland, Maine. And the Annapolis Department of Transportation is working with Partners in Care, an Anne Arundel nonprofit, to beef up volunteer recruitment for its driver program in that city.

There are models of success. In Hagerstown, the Washington County Commission on Aging has an established free-ride program, as has Allied Silver Spring Interfaith Services for Seniors Today (ASSISST) in Montgomery County.

Theodore Raiford, 78, praises the Silver Spring program. ASSISST drivers take Raiford from his home in Wheaton to his doctor's office, where he needs help with stairs and entering the car.

"I've got a walker," he said. "It takes me a long time to walk."

Limited supplemental transportation help is available in parts of Howard County. The Columbia Association's seniors advisory committee sponsors a senior-ride program that has carried people to cultural events for the past five years.

But in these days of tight government budgets, many organizers of new programs feel it is important that senior transportation efforts find sufficiently reliable sources of funding to be sustainable - that they use little or no public money.

This may mean charging a fee, said Dick Kirschner, a member of Transportation Advocates in Howard. "We don't think it's realistic that the county or the state" would provide operating funds for something like this, he said. "If they had more money, they would just increase funding for paratransit, which limits the reason for the trip."

Seniors need help getting to more than medical appointments, said the consultant Kerschner, president of the Beverly Foundation, a California nonprofit that studies senior issues. People need to visit friends and go to church and the beauty parlor, she said.

Providing more senior transportation options is important in the Baltimore region because more and more people are retiring here rather than moving to the Sun Belt or other meccas for seniors.

The 1980 census showed that for the first time "there were more elderly people living in suburban areas than in major cities," said Earl Long, a planner with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a private nonprofit group that provides technical expertise to local governments.

According to a study this year by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Aging, men and women ages 70 to 74 are expected to drive for an average of 11 additional years. But men of that age can expect to live an average 17 more years, and women 21. As a result, most people will need to use alternative forms of transportation for some part of their lives.

If the senior transportation problem is left unsolved, it could cost billions, some experts say, as seniors are forced to pay for more expensive transportation alternatives.

"We help people to continue with their lives independently without having to beg rides from family and friends," said Deb Dulong, financial manager of Portland's Independent Transportation Network. "It's a way of hopefully returning the dignity back to the people."

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