Aging Matters: Transportation tests county’s seniors

A group of Oak Hammock residents get off the bus after an outing.
Courtesy of Oak Hammock

To drive or not to drive? That is the question confronting many people as they age, especially those who live in southern states like Florida, where a car-centric culture makes it more difficult to get around when one can’t, won’t, or is unable to continue driving.

Take Kathy Newman, a 74-year-old woman who lives in northwest Gainesville. Newman got into an automobile accident about a year ago and hasn’t driven since. She now limits most of her activities to places that are within walking distance of her home.

“By walking most places, I get exercise, so I am staying healthier.,” Newman said. “Sure, I miss having a car sometimes, but this isn’t so bad. And I don’t have a car payment.”

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Newman walks to The Atrium, a senior residential home that is less than two miles from her home to visit her 97-year-old father. She occasionally uses a ride-sharing service like Uber or taps into a network of friends for rides to the supermarket, post office, or a doctor’s appointment.

Alice Gridley, 85, takes an opposite approach when she drives her Toyota Prius.

“I never really gave up driving, I just toned it down,” Gridley said. “I’m a careful driver, but I am also aware my driving isn’t as sharp as it used to be, so I pick my paths and I don’t drive at night if I can help it.”

Gridley once sold a vacation home in Longboat Key because of her reluctance to drive on major highways like Interstate 75.

“When you’re driving by yourself and people are cutting in front of you, that is not a safe condition for me or for the other drivers,” she said.

Because she lives in a senior residential community, Gridley also has other options when she doesn’t want to drive somewhere. Oak Hammock, The Village, and The Atrium in Gainesville offer their residents services such as a ride to the doctor and bus trips to see evening theater performances at other venues.

Gridley says she’s lucky to have these privileges.

Photo by Ronnie Lovler Kathy Newman, 74, walks in her Northwest Gainesville neighborhood.

“There’s a solid block of seniors who are tied to their homes only because they do not drive at night or on major highways, and of course some don’t drive at all,” Gridley said.  

Some public transportation opportunities are available, including free bus rides for people over 65 (and under age 18) on the local bus service (RTS), access to funded paratransit rides through a private company (MV Transportation), and limited funding for ride-sharing services like Uber. But it is not enough.

“We are solving a very small part of the problem because the funding is very limited,” said Jeff Lee, director of Elder Care of Alachua County, Inc. “There’s always more need than there is funding. The need is great. The requests far outstrip our ability to provide.”

Lee said funding could quadruple and still come up short.

“Transportation is becoming a bigger issue as more boomers age and the need is going to become greater,” he said. “The elderly population is increasing in Alachua County and Gainesville in particular. As that occurs, the need for senior services in general is going to increase. “

According to the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County, the number of people living here between the ages of 65 and 84 will increase to 41,850 by 2027. That’s up by nearly 7,000 from the 2020 figures.

Lee and other community leaders are looking for innovative transportation solutions to give aging people more options. Autonomous or self-driving vehicles are one promising example and could provide ways for people to get around in smaller communities like Gainesville

At the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions, a study is now underway to find out what older adults think of autonomous vehicles and whether they would use them. The study’s lead investigator is Sherrilene Classen, chair of the department of occupational therapy and director of UF’s Institute for Driving, Activity, Participation and Technology. 

“We like this technology because we think it can overcome some of the mobility constraints older adults have, especially if they don’t want to drive, no longer drive or have never driven before,” Classen said. “But for us to understand deployment practices of these shuttles, we need to know if older adults are going to accept them, so we need to understand their perceptions.”

What Classen’s investigation is doing different from other studies is assessing perceptions of participants before they ride the shuttle, then take them on a shuttle ride and give them another survey to assess what they think.

“The perceptions of older adults improve after they ride the shuttle. They show more trust, believe in its safety, and show a greater intention to use the shuttle in the future,” Classen said.

Partnering in the study are UF Health’s Precision Health Research Center-The Villages and Beep, Inc., an autonomous mobility provider in Lake Nona, Florida.

But while self-driving vehicles could be coming soon, mass access to autonomous vehicles is not immediately around the corner, leaving many seniors with uncertain options.

Courtesy of The Villages An autonomous vehicle at The Villages.

The Center for Independent Living seeks to fill some of that gap by assisting people with disabilities, especially those who are aging, find paratransit services. Project Manager Alex Cavalcante says people who have a verifiable disability that keeps them from riding a bus can get assistance.

“If a doctor makes an assessment that due to their health condition, they are not able to ride a bus or drive they would become eligible for paratransit services,” he said.

Community activists have also been advocating for more transportation options because of the tie-in with health concerns. Wendy Resnick, who chairs the GNV4ALL Health and Transportation Team, said many health care providers have identified transportation as a barrier to people keeping healthcare appointments.

The Fare Less free ride program on RTS has been successful in getting more seniors to ride the bus and for now the program is still in place. In the first nine months of the program, more 282,000 Fare Less rides were registered between seniors and those under 18 years old.

“Riders can use the program to go to work, shopping, visit the library or school or go to a healthcare provider appointment,” Resnick said. “I have talked to seniors using the program and the usage varied—including one senior who decided to ride all the routes and see the community.”

Photo by Ronnie Lovler Alice Grimbley, 85, driving her vehicle.

UF professor Stephen M. Golant, an aging expert, has a different view. He notes that as people age, they are “much less likely to use transit. Waiting time and negotiating the physical challenges [e.g., walking to bus stops or rail stations, weather, crowds, waiting times] of transit travel is much more difficult for this older group.

“Rather than investing in public transit resources for older persons, my recommendation is to invest limited resources in subsidizing the rides of Uber for seniors with lower incomes,” he said. “It’s less expensive to rely on an existing transportation infrastructure than to invest in new buses or vans investing more money in ride-sharing options like Uber and Lyft.”

In the meantime, many elders continue to drive, and AARP is doing what it can to keep people driving safely with its AARP Smart Driving Course. In Florida, people over age 55 are urged to take the course every three years, something which makes them eligible for an auto insurance discount of between 5% to 10%.

Gary LeGrow of Gainesville has been an AARP driving instructor for 25 years. Now he says AARP offers more help than in the past with additional online courses to help aging adults master new car technology and another course, called “We Need to Talk,” with tips on how to approach someone who perhaps shouldn’t be driving.

“Frankly, the way we refer to this, you are trying to talk to someone who you think needs to stop driving [and] it’s like telling them they will need to have their left hand cut off,” LeGrow said. “Most people who are driving don’t want to quit. You lose a lot of independence when you stop driving.”

LeGrow, 85, wants to extend the runway for senior drivers, so he gives the basic AARP driving course in Gainesville once a month at the Senior Recreation Center. Other instructors offer courses at other locations.

“The whole purpose of this course is to give people information that will allow them to keep driving safely longer,” LeGrow said. “We want to keep people on the road, but we want to make sure they are doing it safely.”

Editor’s note: This is the seventh story in Mainstreet’s Aging Matters series. It was independently reported by Ronnie Lovler and underwritten by Elder Options. Some reporting was made possible by Lovler’s acceptance as a fellow into the 2022 Age Boom Academy, a program of the Columbia Journalism School, the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, and the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.    

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Jenifer Dearinger

Great article on alternative transportation options for seniors. I’m looking forward to the next article in the series on Aging Matters.

Faith Reidenbach

Good job, Ronnie and MSDN. This is a very interesting topic to me and you gathered such a range of perspectives.