Even amid the California sprawl, an age-friendly community embraces the importance of transportation in maintaining quality of life for people of all ages including older adults, who may have restricted driver’s licenses or may simply not be comfortable behind the wheel any longer.
After all, a driver’s license means independence to American adults. It means easy access to services and activities. More than that, it means maintaining rich connections with others.
“And losing your driving ability makes people lose more than their mobility,” said Wende
Dawson Chan, executive director of ITN Greater San Diego, a ridesharing nonprofit. “We’ve created communities that don’t have sidewalks, and some are cut off by freeways. So we’ve created isolation, as well.”
“That’s not a livable community for aging in place.”
The challenges are clear when it comes to creating lifelong transportation opportunities in the livable community. Affordable, reliable public transit is vital. So are safe sidewalks and crossings. And so are choices that go beyond car keys and bus passes.
While older drivers tend to remain active and engaged in life, non-drivers age 65 and older socialize 65 percent less of the time and make almost 60 percent fewer trips to run chores and see their doctors 15 percent less often. By a margin of almost 90 percent, older adults say they want to remain in their own homes and communities as they age but 56 percent of them live in the suburbs, where public transit options can be slim.
And the number of older adults who no longer drive had already increased by 1.1 million in the decade ending in 2009, far ahead of the upcoming tsunami of aging baby boomers.
A vibrant, age-friendly community not only keeps people safe behind the wheel and provides them good transportation once they no longer drive. It also puts into place creative programs that will work for tomorrow’s older adults.
Over the past decade, for example, more than 7,000 older drivers across the country and hundreds in California have received car inspections from CarFit, a program created by AARP, AAA and the American Occupational Therapy Association to ensure that mature drivers remain safe behind the wheel. Can they sit high enough to see over the wheel? Do their cars “fit” them, so they’re aware of the traffic around them?
“The most common problem is, people don’t have their side mirrors adjusted,” said Bob Vatz, 89, a CarFit volunteer and AARP driving safety instructor in Long Beach. “Some people don’t even see cars on the side.”
But what happens when a little adjustment isn’t enough when doctors, the Department of Motor Vehicles or older adults themselves decide that it’s time not to drive?
In Los Angeles, the Investing in Place program, which researches ways for transportation to be accessible and available across the demographic spectrum, seeks out the voice of older adults as part of the conversation on how to spend public transit dollars.
“Transportation funding is typically addressed toward how people commute to and from work,” said Jessica Meaney, Investing in Place’s managing director. “But we want to ensure that public transportation dollars address communities, not just commuters.”
One alternative is LA Metro’s On the Move Riders Club, established in July 2012 with the idea of coaching older adults on how to use the bus and train system. To increase ridership and comfort level, the groups plan monthly outings from 28 seniors’ centers across the county, led by older adults with experience using transit.
“In our part of California, we love our cars,” said Lilly Ortiz, program coordinator.
“Sometimes we need extra assistance being oriented to the transit system. It’s helpful to have peers who are already accustomed to it.”
And sometimes, especially in suburbs and sparsely populated exurban areas where public transit isn’t an option, it’s helpful just to have a ride, door to door, arm in arm a safe, comfortable escort to a doctor’s appointment or even just the grocery store. That’s what the nonprofit ridesharing organization ITNAmerica and its three California affiliates, including Santa Monica, Monterey County and Greater San Diego, can provide, for an annual membership fee plus low costs per ride.
The growing San Diego chapter, dating from early 2014, has 70 members and a dozen volunteer drivers including its executive director.
“The cost isn’t the major impediment,” said Wende Dawson Chan. “It’s knowing such a thing exists.”
“We have to rethink how we envision the aging process. That change of attitude is key.”
This is the second in a series of blogs talking about what it means to create a livable community. Find out more on AARP’s Livability page. You can also see what we are doing in California by following us on Facebook or Twitter.
Anita Creamer is a freelance writer based in Sacramento and a veteran newspaper and magazine reporter who most recently covered aging issues for The Sacramento Bee. You can reach her on Twitter @AnitaCreamer .