More elderly need rides, but agencies don't have enough volunteers

CHAMPAIGN — Brother (or sister) can you spare a ride?

Many elderly folks who can't drive themselves anymore need someone to drive them to the doctor, the grocery store, to church, and all the other places they need to go.

But, with the ranks of the elderly growing and fewer volunteer drivers available these days, local agencies can barely keep up with the need.

"Volunteers aren't stepping up," said Rosanna McLain, Senior Resource Center director at Family Service of Champaign County, one of the local service agencies that provide a limited number of free rides for the elderly using volunteer drivers.

"Fifty percent of our rides used to be provided by volunteers, but we don't have that anymore," McLain said.

Many former volunteers were once active, retired seniors who have since slowed down and become some of the elderly who now need to be driven places themselves, she said.

But where are the active, retired seniors coming along behind them?

Some are probably working longer before retiring and don't have daytime hours free, McLain said. Some aren't aware of the need, and some may not be comfortable volunteering for this kind of service.

About 80 percent of the requests Family Service receives for rides are for medical appointments, so her agency is looking for daytime volunteers to be drivers, McLain said.

But another local program that provides senior transportation, Provena's Faith in Action program, can use drivers any day, any hour.

"We're getting a lot more requests for getting groceries, and we can still use weekend and evening volunteers," said Linda Tauber-Olson, Provena senior programs coordinator.

More seniors, more rides

Champaign County's population over age 60 was projected to grow 30 percent between 2000 and 2030, but it already grew nearly 25 percent in the single decade between 2000 and 2010, McLain said.

Nationally, the fastest-growing age group is 75-and-older, she said.

"More are getting to the age that they're not comfortable driving a car," McLain said. "They want to stay in the community and they don't have a way to get around."

Leroy Williams, 71, of Urbana, has already reached the age.

A former heavy equipment operator who lived in Elgin, Williams says he had to stop working in his early 60s when he had a heart attack.

He moved to Champaign County to live closer to his daughter in Champaign.

She comes and sees him, he said, "but she stays pretty busy."

With multiple health issues and lots of doctor appointments and treatments to get to every month, Williams said he relies on the Provena program and the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District's half-fare cab program to help him get around.

"Sometimes I use them three times a week," he said of the Provena program.

If Provena doesn't have a ride for him, he said, "they send me to Family Service."

Provena's program saw an 82 percent increase in transportation requests between 2010 and '11, Tauber-Olson said. And, based on the first three months of this year, she expects that growth to continue.

The demand for rides at Family Service has also grown in the past year from 450 to 600 a month, McLain said.

The agency is meeting the extra need, thanks to some grant money from Carle Foundation Hospital and Physician Group, she said, "but that will run out. We've used most of it."

People using the Family Service program are limited to two rides a week, one for a medical appointment, and one for a "quality of life" errand, such as shopping or banking, McLain said.

For some people with many medical needs, that isn't enough. Family Service and Provena swap their resources back and forth and try to squeeze more rides for people in need, McLain and Tauber-Olson said.

"We're working together to get the job done," McLain said. "But it's beginning to overwhelm us."

Terry Fansler, 58, of Rantoul, got rides through Provena's Faith in Action program when she had a hip replacement and promised to give back as a driver.

Sometimes she needs rides, and sometimes she provides rides.

When she can give back, she said, "it's the most rewarding thing I've ever done."

Nancy Daigh, 83, of Urbana, a Faith in Action volunteer driver, said she just likes giving.

"It's trying to be the Lord's hands in the community," she said. "I can't begin to tell you the rewards, the wonderful people I've had the privilege of meeting."

Other options

McLain and Tauber-Olson say more volunteer drivers would help most.

Meanwhile, seniors age 65 and older and people with disabilities can obtain a DASH pass through the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, which entitles them to free rides on any regularly scheduled MTD route, MTD Assistant Managing Director Tom Costello said.

The MTD also provides a half-fare cab program, though that's more limited. Costello said the MTD pays for about $30 worth of fares a month for DASH pass holders.

But not everyone lives on an MTD route, and not all seniors who live in MTD territory are able-bodied enough to get to the bus-stop and wait for a bus.

"It doesn't work for everyone," McLain said.

But a task force of medical providers and service agencies studying senior transportation solutions is including making bus riding more familiar and comfortable for those seniors for whom it's an option, Tauber-Olson said.

Costello said about 2,000 people in the community have DASH passes, among them even some country club member-seniors who enjoy free rides to football games.

But, he said, "part of the reason we did that was to encourage people to use the bus service."

Once people discover how convenient bus riding is, elderly folks who may otherwise be home-bound discover they don't have to depend on other people to get around the community and they can have an independent life, he said.

It's not just medical and physical needs that are being met by rides to the doctor, to the grocery store, to dialysis, and elsewhere, McLain and Tauber-Olson said.

Social contact is good for an elderly person's well-being.

"I have this notion that if we did more qualify of life for seniors, there might be a little less need for medical," Tauber-Olson said. "I don't know if it's true or not, but they need attention."

Depression and loss are big issues for seniors, McLain said.

"Being out and about is good for our mental health," she said.

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