When I talk to community groups about long-term care, I almost always get a question about dad’s car keys: An adult child fears for the safety of dad (and other drivers who share the road with him). Dad is terrified that he’ll lose a huge piece of his independence when he can no longer drive to the supermarket or visit friends. And, in truth, dad isn’t wrong. In too much of the United States, losing your car can sentence you to a lifetime of lonliness and dependence.
The Washington Post’s did Carol Morello wrote a nice piece this week about the graying of suburbia, based on some new research by Brookings Institution demographer William Frey. But Carol’s piece barely mentioned the huge problem of suburban seniors who have no access to public transportation. It is already a terrible problem in much of the country. And it is likely to be made much worse by ongoing government budget cuts.
Many suburban jurisdictions already have inadequate public transportation, and what they have is often geared to getting commuters to work. Outside of rush hour, buses are few and far between. And besides, public transit is often inacessible to seniors who may be unable to walk from home to the bus stop. Special transportation for the elderly and people with disabilities requires additional funding–money that is likely to shrink as Congress and state governments slash their budgets.
A new study by the group Trasportation for America estimates that by 2015, more than 15 million seniors will live in communities where public transit is poor or inadequate. And they won’t be just in small towns or rural areas. In metro Atanta, 90 percent of seniors will live in neighborhoods without good access to transit. In Kansas City, 88 percent; in Montgomery AL, 99 percent. In Ft Worth TX, 85 percent.
Transportation is a critical piece of the infrastructure seniors need to age in place. Along with programs such as Meals on Wheels, subsidized housing, and adult day care, public transit can make the critical difference between being able to stay home and having to move to a care facility. It can provide an important supplement to family members who are caring for their parents and often serve as the “wheels” for loved ones. And by helping the low-income frail elderly stay at home, it can actually save states money. Even if a senior has a good Medicaid home care benefit, it is often neither possible nor advisable to remain home without accessible transportation.
What can communities do as we move into a era of fewer government resources? There are some interesting options–many built around volunteerism. For example, in senior villages–those grass-roots non-profits created by seniors to help seniors, the most commonly requested volunteer service is for rides. Faith communities or social organizations can match volunteer drivers with those who need rides. Private non-profits can try to pick up the slack with the help of grants and charitable gifts (full disclosure: I serve on the board of a non-profit that provides low-cost bus services–along with other services–to seniors).
In the big, noisy debate about Medicare and Medicaid, services such as transportation are often forgotten. But they are critical to the needs of the frail elderly, especially with so many trapped deep in the suburbs.