Everyone remembers the feeling of independence that came from receiving a driver’s license. It is such a thrill to be able to go where we want, when we want. We all shudder at the thought of that freedom being curtailed. No matter how much we may dread the day we give up our license, it is obvious that for most of us, that day will come.
The average person outlives his or her ability to drive by 11 years. That is a mind-boggling statistic, and one that should capture the attention of every person who lives in a rural community and hopes to stay there until the end of his or her life. It means most of us will give up driving before we die, some of us for decades.
Odds are you have seen plenty of seniors driving around town. The seniors who are not driving anymore are not as visible, however. They are still in our community, and while it is easy to assume that people who no longer drive all live in assisted living facilities or nursing homes, that is not the case. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only about 5 percent of the population aged 65 and over lives in institutional settings at any given time.
That means a large portion of people who can no longer drive need to be able to get around town— either with public transportation or some other means. It’s an important problem, but a simple one to solve.
Most seniors hope to remain in their familiar communities to the ends of their lives, and they generally hope to live in their own homes, as well. Being unable to drive can make those goals difficult to achieve, particularly in our community.
Public transportation can ease the challenges presented by the lack of a driver’s license, but unfortunately, [most small towns do] not have any. The result of this, too often, is people who should not be driving often do.
If you are a senior living in an area without public transportation, you are less likely to voluntarily stop driving You are also less likely to be completely honest with your doctor if you fear losing your license, and with it your independence.
For seniors who do not drive, the options are limited. Family and friends may provide transportation assistance up to a point. [Many senior centers can connect seniors with rides to grocery shop and to weekday lunch sites}. But seniors need more than this.
Medical appointments can prove to be particularly difficult for seniors who no longer drive. RSVP of Dane County coordinates volunteer driver escorts who provide rides to medical appointments for seniors. This is a very valuable service, but it is limited by the number of local volunteers who are available to provide the rides.
That is where readers of this column come in. Most of you know how to drive, and it doesn’t take a big time commitment to help.
McFarland has a fairly small number of dedicated RSVP volunteers who do their best to meet the needs of a growing pool of people who do not drive. But the number of people using the program is growing much faster than the number of volunteers who provide the rides. This means there are times when seniors find themselves cancelling appointments because they lack transportation.
Volunteering to provide rides to medical appointments or to deliver meals is one way seniors and others can “pay it forward” and help another senior now, knowing that the odds are good they themselves will need that same service in the future.
The driver program is very flexible. RSVP volunteer drivers control their own schedules and drive at times convenient for them. They can be snowbirds. They can have part-time jobs. They can limit their driving to communities in which they feel comfortable. They are also reimbursed for the mileage they put on their vehicles.
Drivers go through a background check and a driving record review prior to being accepted into the program. Once they are enrolled in the program, driver are contacted by a volunteer coordinator about their availability. Seniors in need of rides do not contact drivers directly
The 29 RSVP volunteer drivers covering the McFarland area drove 8269 miles on behalf of seniors in 2016, for a variety of reasons. They made 364 medical trips. Some delivered meals to homebound seniors each weekday—they dropped off 3002 meals in 2016. Some participated in both medical rides and meal deliveries, while others chose to focus their driving on one program or the other.
Each year we have volunteer drivers who leave the program, often as their own or their spouse’s health has declined. We have generally been able to add new dependable and active volunteers each year (others sign up but for a variety of reasons fail to become actively involved). At the current rate of growth, the number of drivers …. is not keeping up with the number of riders.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer driver, the Senior Center can talk to you further or put you in touch with RSVP of Dane County.
(This article originally appeared in the Oregon Observer and was written by Oregon Area Senior Center Director Rachel Brickner. It has been modified to include data relevant to this geographic area.)