In Search of a Ride

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins June 15, 2008 11:06

Wanda Anderson always wanted to learn how to drive.

Her mother wouldn’t let her, although her three brothers were allowed to.

“My mom never drove, and she never let me drive,” she recalls. “She just acted like I wouldn’t be safe out by myself in a car, even though we lived in Big Oak Flat, a little place where you knew everyone.”

When she married at 16, her husband, Delbert, didn’t want her driving either.

“Finally I raised such a fuss about it, he bought me a little car. I can still remember the license plate: YUM415. He was going to teach me to drive, but it scared him too bad so he got rid of it.”

A homemaker who raised two children, Wanda relied on Delbert to take her to the market and on errands. He died nearly 10 years ago, a year before their 50th wedding anniversary.

“After he died I didn’t have enough money to buy a car and insurance and gas,” she says.

Now, at the age of 71, she continues to wait for a ride.

Eight months ago, Anderson moved to Sonora to be closer to the doctors she visits several times a month. Under care for diabetes and heart disease, along with numerous other medical problems, she can’t stand or walk for more than a few minutes without discomfort.

To catch a $2 ride on the county transit bus requires waiting outside on the sidewalk. “Sometimes it’s cold and raining, and sometimes they’re 30 minutes late, which matters if you’re going to a doctor’s appointment,” she says. “The last time I used them they were supposed to come back for me but left me stranded.”

On a monthly income of $1,030, with $550 spent on rent for her tiny apartment, she can’t afford a $14 round-trip taxi fare to the hospital a mile away. So she relies on a part-time caregiver, college student Emily, for rides here and there. At the same time, she wishes fervently – just as she did when she was younger – that she had more options.

It is a story repeated across Tuolumne County, where seniors who do not drive for various reasons – age-related conditions, medical disability, or finances – lack affordable, convenient transportation.

As a result, they must rely on public transportation, family, friends or the kindness of strangers for access to medical care, social outings, grocery shopping and other essentials, plus other minor errands or pleasures that those still driving may take for granted.

Some seniors may hold onto their driver’s license long past their safe driving days, just to preserve much-treasured independence and access to services.

“There are so many people who become isolated because they can’t get out,” says retiree and senior advocate Judy Finley. “Maybe they just want to go out to dinner once in a while, maybe to a movie. If they don’t have close friends nearby and they’re 80 years old and don’t drive, are they just supposed to not enjoy any of these things in life any longer?”

Finley developed a compelling interest in senior issues after watching her mother-in-law lose her eyesight, social life, health and independence in the 17 years before her death in 2004.

“Seeing this very independent, strong woman lose her friends and lose her connection to the community was an earth-shaking event for me,” recalls Finley, 63, a retired corporate travel manager. “She kept saying, ‘I never thought this would happen to me.’ It really disturbed me and I thought there has to be a better way to age.”

She was intrigued by an article on a Boston-area community that banded together to provide 24-hour services to its member seniors, whether they needed a ride, household help or other assistance that would let enable them to live at home for as long as possible.

Finley showed the story to her neighbor, Joan Wilkinson, a retired nursing supervisor, and in 2006, Senior Resource Service was created to improve senior services and support to the elderly in Tuolumne County.

The SRS board includes Finley as president; Wilkinson; retired attorney Adrianne Souza; accountant Eric Carlson; information-technology specialist Roberta Goodwin; retired pharmacist Dan Bertelli; and retired businessman Nick Cretan, who is also chairman of the Tuolumne County Commission on Aging.

Last year the nonprofit group created and distributed a directory of senior programs and services. Future plans call for matching volunteers to help seniors with simple chores and companionship. The group also wants to create a trusted-vendor list, assuring seniors that the workers they hire have had background checks.

But the group’s first priority is providing essential transportation for seniors who can’t drive. That focus draws an appreciative nod from Pauline White, assistant director of the Area 12 Agency on Aging.

“The existing resources are simply inadequate,” White says. “A person without a ride has very limited options. Our seniors need medical transportation in and out of the county, but they also need to get groceries, have their hair done, go to the library, shopping and other essential errands. This is one of the biggest issues now.”

Darin Grossi, Tuolumne County deputy public works director, applauds the efforts by Senior Resource Service. He feels badly when he hears about customers like Wanda Anderson who’ve had a negative experience, and says the county is constantly working to improve service, with changes like computer-aided dispatch and regular review of routes and schedules.

He also acknowledges that while public transit works well for many people, it may not be the best choice for the frail elderly or those with serious medical problems.

“I love the idea,” Grossi says of the new ride program. “This will serve a niche for people who have specialized needs that will be better served by a volunteer organization.”

Senior Resource Service began the pilot program in April in cooperation with the Area 12 Agency. More than a dozen SRS volunteers now drive some clients of Area 12 to appointments, errands and outings within Tuolumne County. Volunteers are reimbursed for gas costs. Seniors are not asked or required to pay for rides but donations are accepted, Finley said.

If the nonprofit can find more funding and more volunteers, Finley said, the service will expand beyond Area 12 clients to the public at large, with routes extending to Modesto and Stockton.

If something as simple as an affordable ride can help an individual to remain active in the community, she says, more seniors will be able to age with greater comfort and dignity.

“People who become isolated because they can’t get out don’t feel worthwhile, they don’t have that feeling of being needed,” Finley says. “And yet they still have so much to offer. I think it’s the community’s responsibility to keep those people in the loop so that we can benefit from their knowledge as the community grows.”

Wanted: Good Drivers

If you would like to volunteer to drive seniors to medical and other appointments, call Senior Resource Service at 588-1334. Volunteers must have a valid driver’s license, a good driving record, and proof of insurance; SRS will provide fingerprinting and additional insurance, plus gas reimbursement. The nonprofit’s office is within the Sheriff Department’s Community Service Unit office in The Junction Shopping Center, 13769-A Mono Way. For more information, call Judy Finley at 588-9408 or email her at 1srs1@wildblue.net.

© 2008, Friends and  Neighbors Magazine

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins June 15, 2008 11:06
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