Saturday, June 29, 2013

Smart Senior Transportation

As we ready ourselves for another American Independence Day we might think of independence as the ability to do things without needing others.

Like driving a car.  Remember how excited we were the first few times we got to “solo” in the family sedan?  And remember how we were told that with this new “right” to independence we also took on a whole new set of responsibilities!

A driver’s license is an example of a coming of age, a certainty of future freedom and limitless opportunity. Certainly true when one is a teen and wanted to ‘get out’ and see the world even if it was just down the street.

But when did a driver’s license become the means of independence for older adults?  And at what cost to themselves and others?

Shockingly twice as many older adults than teenagers are killed in motor vehicle accidents each year, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Nationwide, 15 seniors lose their lives every day in an effort to maintain their independence.

If the reason auto fatality rates increase at age 75 and again at 80 due to susceptibility to injury and medical complications then let’s address that. If the older adult may have occasional diminished reflexes let’s get ‘smart’ car technology to prevent starting the car just like impaired drivers due to alcohol. Let’s keep senior’s reflexes sharp and their medical conditions stable. At the same time we could increase preferable transportation options.

Taking away a driver’s license is tantamount to proposing a constitutional amendment. My thought is: mobility yes, driver’s license maybe.

It is the right of the people to be secure in pursuit of mobility outside their home. Their rights against unreasonable limits on this freedom shall not be violated.

The point then is to define unreasonable limits not based on being too old but on being too inattentive, too stiff to turn one’s head or too visually impaired. Most thorough analyses show that age is not the determinant but capability, coupled with competent self-judgment is the key. Some 69 year olds are highly distractible; some 86 year olds are serious, thoughtful and have timely responses.

In a recent survey Christine Thayer, master’s candidate in Gerontology at CSULB, discovered “the most sought destinations of older adults in Long Beach (in order of demand) were: social activities, the grocery store, medical visits and the drug store. She adds, “Driving was the most usual form of transportation. But interestingly, walking was the second highest, although less than driving”.

According to local senior transportation expert Diane Johnson, an urban personal transportation system has three elements: private car; public bus transit, and for-profit cab. But to be effective for those who do not have a driver’s license, a forth component is essential: a door-to-door transit system. 

Long Beach advocates have long sought to offer this avenue to reduce the need for senior’s at-risk for injury or accident to be dependent on a car. Cities such as Compton and Gardena have a federally funded Para-transit system that offers door-to-door service for older adults and those with disabilities.

I missed the lecture about how dependent we would become on the car. Or that I’d be strongly encouraged to stop walking, share rides or take the bus. Our attitudes about riding the bus are mixed; and generally the bus has not been considered hip or current. Most middle aged adults may have missed having to ride to school on the bus and certainly not once they pocketed keys to the family car. Buses are for children, poor people – not people like us. Now we have to have programs to teach people how to get on and off the bus.

We are addicted to impulse rides and the reluctance to walk ‘too far’.  Need some fast food? Just pop in the car and go to a drive-thru. Antsy for some action? Cruise the freeways to a shopping center. It seems the only downside if you travel using transit or friends is the need to plan. Like grocery shopping just once weekly if a car is needed; but more often if the grocery is just down the street and you can walk there. Some schedule all their doctors’ appointments on one day a week so they can make dependable arrangements. The pay-off is their week is not cluttered up with various office visits and they can play bingo, exercise, volunteer, attend knitting class or join the fellows for a pool game down at the hall.

Legislation is needed to mitigate the limits of merging archaic systems like bus lines with free or subsidized shuttles. Inane constraints include the inability of public transit services to go across county lines. Living in Long Beach as a senior, you know that going from Leisure World to the downtown Long Beach hospitals, which may be just a few miles, represents a significant transit barrier. Obstacles such as these may cause those who shouldn’t drive to continue to drive.

We like to tell ourselves later is soon enough. After all, Mom's erratic driving hasn't caused any damage beyond scratched paint and even though she's increasingly forgetful she still has good days.
Our motto seems to be "Why do today what you can put off to tomorrow?" So first – the self-assessment:
• Can you depress the brake pedal with your knee bent?
• Do you have difficulty deciding when to enter a lane of moving traffic?
• Can you lift your arm high enough to adjust the rear view mirror?
• Can you go outside in the bright sunlight and immediately see clearly?

There are 20 other great questions such as, can you keep up with traffic or have you had ‘fender benders’ and these can be found in the State of California’s Senior Guide for Safe Driving.

To be sure, attitude re-adjustment is unpleasant and altering federal funding streams seems near impossible but boomers need to face facts: no one gets out alive. Mom is going to die. She needs our help to have a good quality life as her body, and perhaps her mind, fails. Boomers love to talk about "giving back" to the community. How about showering some of this largess on the person who's earned the payback?

So, now is the time to call Elbow to Elbow, The Volunteer Ride Share Program and speak to Chris Palzer at 562-506-2801 or email Give back to help those younger than you experience what that fourth rail of the transportation system looks like.

And for those who’d like to see Long Beach use federal dollars for a door-to-door shuttle, well just write your councilperson and describe your needs. And suggest that there be an Office on Aging so the city can create best-practices on this issue. Or read a few issues of Trends in Senior Transportation from the National Center of Transportation – people have been working on wrapping their arms around senior transportation. Locally you are encouraged to attend the Older Adult Transportation Task Force in Long Beach and help plan for our community’s mobility and transportation future.

So just like a financial plan for retirement; each of us needs a well-thought out personal transportation plan. What’s yours?

Local Resources:
Elbow to Elbow - The Volunteer Ride Share Program and speak to Chris Palzer at 562-506-2801 or email or check out their website
Older Adult Transportation Task Force (Long Beach) contact Diane Johnson

Other Resources:
National Center for Senior Transportation
Centers for Disease Control Fact Sheet – Senior Drivers


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