Transportation: Senior independence depends on it

11 years ago

Susan CollinsBy U.S. Sen. Susan Collins

    We Americans love our cars and trucks. From the time most of us were old enough to drive, we have been behind the wheel. Automobiles mean freedom – not in some grand philosophical sense – but in a real and practical sense that matters to us in our everyday lives. Having a vehicle, and being able to drive it, means the freedom to go where we want, when we want.

    But as we age, we find it harder and harder to use the freedom given to us by automobiles. As our abilities decline, driving becomes more complicated. Finally the day comes when we wonder whether we should keep driving at all, and yet, if we don’t, how we will go about our daily lives.
    And many of us struggle with how to tell our parents or grandparents that it is no longer safe for them to drive.
    That day has already come for millions of senior citizens around the country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 19 percent of our population, or 13.9 million people, will need alternative transportation options to continue living independently.
    As Ranking Member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, I recently held a hearing to examine the transportation challenges faced by our nation’s seniors, particularly those living in rural areas who do not have access to public transportation. One of our witnesses was Katherine Freund from Portland. In 1988, Katherine’s three-year-old son was run over by an 84-year-old man who did not realize that he had hit a child. The accident left the young boy critically injured and in a coma. Remarkably, he survived. But in that moment, Katherine learned that what happened to her son is the result of a growing crisis in our nation: As Americans are living longer and their ability to drive safely diminishes in their older years, they often have no choice but to drive to reach destinations that are necessary for their everyday living – such as the grocery store, the post office, the doctor’s office, or even just to visit family and friends.
    The last White House Conference on Aging identified transportation as the third most important issue for seniors out of hundreds of options for priorities. This issue is particularly a concern in rural states, such as in Maine.
    Not being able to drive takes a particular toll on seniors living in rural, low-density areas. In 2004, a study from the Government Accountability Office found that 60 percent of non-drivers in rural areas reported that they stayed home on a given day because they lacked transportation.
    In addition, non-drivers over the age of 75 and living in the suburbs reported significant dissatisfaction with how their transportation needs are being met compared to those living in cities. Since three out of four older people live in low-density areas, these concerns raise significant policy questions.
    Public transportation, which is often hailed as a primary solution, simply does not meet the needs of many seniors, particularly those in rural areas. More than a third of those over the age of 69 have no public transportation in their communities. Those who do live near mass transit options must plan around route restrictions, uneven trip frequencies, hours of operation, or advance-notice reservations. In most rural areas, public transportation simply does not exist.
    According to the Maine Office of Aging and Disability Services, of people using State-funded home care services, just 65 percent of those over age 65 reported that they could “always” get to the doctor when needed, and only 36 percent could “always” get to the grocery store. For those dependent on others to meet their transportation needs, 90 percent relied on friends or family members.
    That’s not surprising since one in five Americans age 65 and older does not drive. Without driving, seniors must find some other way to get to the places they need to go.
    Seniors say that the automobile remains their desired mode of transportation. In survey responses gathered by AARP, seniors expressed an aversion to alternative modes such as public transit, specialized transportation and walking. The very same functional changes that make it difficult to drive — such as mobility loss and vision changes — also make it difficult to use traditional mass transportation.
    The challenge of providing transportation alternatives to our senior citizens is literally growing by the day. To meet this challenge, we must find reasonable, practical transportation models that allow seniors to stay active and mobile even after they stop driving.
    One such model is ITNAmerica, which was founded in Maine by Katherine Freund shortly after that horrible accident that badly injured her son, and has since branched out to communities nationwide. ITNAmerica uses private automobiles to provide rides to senior citizens whenever they want, almost like a taxi service. Riders open an account which is automatically charged when the service is used. Riders can get credits for rides through volunteer services, through donations, by donating their private car to the program after they have decided they should no longer drive.
    I was pleased to have secured critical federal funding to support ITNAmerica and to have authored legislation, the “Older Americans Sustainable Mobility Act,” which built upon the successful model created by Katherine. The funding provided through my legislation would be used as seed money for the development and expansion of private and non-profit senior transportation systems.
    We must work together to address this problem and seek solutions that help our nation’s seniors maintain an independent lifestyle where they are not completely dependent upon loved ones, friends, and neighbors for transportation, and that allows them to remain active in their communities.