Senior mobility crisis of declining options

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By the year 2030, approximately 72 million people, one in five Americans (20%), will be 65 years of age and older. In this age group, people outlive their decision to stop driving by about 10 years, and three out of four live in rural and suburban communities that lack the density for traditional mass transit solutions.

Their unmet transportation needs lead to social isolation, diminished quality of life, limited access to healthcare and a strain on families and caregivers.

Mobility needs change as we age, but are poorly understood

It is apparent that our needs change as we age, but how they change, and in particular how our transportation needs change, is only generally understood. Fortunately there is a US organisation that has over a million such data points from the last 20 years.

ITNAmerica is the first national, non-profit US transportation network for older adults. It promotes lifelong mobility for seniors by supporting sustainable, community-based transportation and leading a national transportation network grounded in research, policy analysis and education. ITN affiliates offer rides 24/7 in private automobiles, and ITN uses their ride data to better understand transportation needs and behaviors for older adults and visually impaired people.

ITNAmerica’s database contains data from more than one million ITN rides gathered from more than 20 US areas, over more than 20 years. From this emerges a data-driven portrait of how older people use a barrier-free transportation service specifically designed to meet their needs.

Based on these data and the ITNAmerica annual customer satisfaction survey, the typical ITN rider is a woman (74%), age 75 or older (71%) living alone (58%). She probably has a driver’s license (69%) and owns a car (59%), but there is only one chance in three she still drives (34%). She uses ITN for the following ride purposes:

Rides by purpose, as of July 30, 2019
  • healthcare (39.5%)
  • consumer needs (23%)
  • recreation (10%)
  • work and volunteer activity (7%)
  • religious needs (7%)
  • social rides (6.5%)
  • rides in general (3%)
  • educational needs (2%)
  • trips for intermodal connections (<1%)
  • professional services, such as to lawyers and accountants (<1%)

ITN riders self-report their health status as excellent (10%), very good (21%) or good (39%) and their income ranges from low (38% less than $25,000) to high (15% greater than $75,000).

Of particular note are their special needs, with many riders requiring a:

  • cane (23%)
  • walker (21%) or
  • wheelchair (5%)

Many seniors also report functional conditions that require special assistance, such as:

  • visual impairment or blindness (15%)
  • Alzheimers or dementia (5%)
  • anxiety disorder (3%)
  • bladder disorder (3%)
  • deafness (3%)

Many in these categories also require personal or driver assistance (15%).

Options are limited

However US public transport systems struggle to meet the mobility needs of those who cannot drive. For-profit ride hailing services also offer limited help. National Public Radio recently reported that disability rights advocates see a pattern of exclusion and substandard service for people who use wheelchairs:

Uber and Lyft transformed how people get around cities, but the ride-sharing revolution hasn’t included everyone. Many people with a disability who use wheelchairs say Lyft and Uber have substandard or non-existent service for them. Disability rights advocates say they see a pattern of exclusion that violates federal law.

Good News

The good news is that there are millions of older Americans available to help fill that role. Currently, more than 40% of ITN rides are delivered by volunteer drivers who also provide personal assistance – carrying packages, folding walkers, opening doors and lending an arm for balance and security.

ITN delivers rides for everything, from older adults taking their grandchildren bowling to social engagements arranged through on-line dating services. A Creative Ride of the Month Award was even given to a retired professor to take his television to the dump. When it comes to healthcare, ITN does everything, including rides to surgery, dialysis, and complex medical procedures – about 20 medical specialties. It transports riders at every level of ability, including people in wheelchairs, amputees and people who are blind or experiencing dementia – just about everyone.

The future of mobility for older people and people with special needs may learn a lot from the non-profit volunteer services like ITN that operate in communities across the US.

Written by Katherine Freund