Program helps older adults get around

by Lee Horton

For most of us, the ability to drive is a privilege. Having that privilege taken away would be akin to having our independence taken away.

When people obtain their driver’s license as a teenager, they gain the ability to go almost anywhere they want, provided they have the resources. The freedom to roam as they please only increases over the next 30, 40 or 50 years. The older people get, though, the more their physical abilities start to dwindle. Often, the privilege of independent transportation is taken away, but their need for transportation still exists.

“Things weaken with loss,” said Scott Wright, director of the Gerontology Interdisciplinary Program at the University of Utah. “It’s important to let (older adults) know they have options.”

When it comes to catching a ride to an important doctor’s appointment or the pharmacy, or to do other essential errands, an option older adults in Salt Lake County have is the Salt Lake County Aging Services’ Senior Transportation Program.

The Senior Transportation Program provides rides to people 60 years old and older who have no other means of transportation.

“A lot of people in their 70s and 80s can drive,” said program manager Bob Prottas. “(A person) might be able to drive to the store, the library, church or other places near her home, but she might not be comfortable driving to the University of Utah.”

Prottas reports the free service has been put to good use.

“We do 50,000 rides per year,” Prottas said. “We’re north of 200 every week.”

According to the Aging Services Web site, the Senior Transportation Program drives older adults to medical appointments, physical therapy, pick up prescriptions or to visit family members in hospitals. Some riders only use the services when their usual modes of transportation are unavailable. Others use it on a regular basis. The frequency often depends on the rider’s nearby family support.

“Some don’t have family, or they’re out of town, or they don’t give a damn,” Prottas said.

Wright and other gerontologists feel such programs go beyond the medical benefits in helping adults live healthier, longer lives.

“We feel mobility is critical for older adults,” Wright said.

Many older adults fear crime and the other dangers of the world. Statistics, however, show they are not often victims of crimes. Wright feels it is important these fears don’t stop older adults from venturing beyond the walls of their home. Just being out and interacting with the world is crucial.

“The fountain of youth is being mentally and physically active,” Wright said.

Prottas adds internal pride and a type of self-esteem to the list of benefits of the Senior Transportation Program. “It helps them maintain their independence,” he said.

The program allows older adults to not only take care of their essentials, but also to arrange the weekday rides to fit their schedules.

Driving positions are filled by both employees and volunteers, all of whom must pass a criminal background check. They also must possess the right kind of personality. Prottas considers driving older adults a “social-type job,” and therefore looks to hire outgoing people.

The Senior Transportation Program has 64 volunteers and is always looking for more. Just about anybody with a clean record and a driver’s license can volunteer.

“(The volunteers) range from their mid-20s to their mid-60s,” Prottas said. “Some of our volunteers are more apt to be clients.”

The service is available Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., and Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Rides can be scheduled up to a week in advance. Prottas recommends getting it scheduled as close to that week as possible, as the schedules fill up fast.

There is no cost, though Aging Services sends out slips recommending a $2 donation for each trip. Because some clients do not pay and others pay more than $2, Prottas says the average received donation per ride is $1.75. With 50,000 trips in a year, according to Prottas, the program brings in approximately $87,000 per year.

Among those 50,000 rides are group grocery shopping trips prearranged with participating senior centers. Individual grocery excursions, though, do not fall within the “essential” category. The same is true for rides to movies, hairdressers or to the mall. Prottas and the Senior Transportation program will help people meet their needs, but satisfying wants is left up to the riders themselves.