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Archive for Sunday, May 2, 2004

Giving up car keys leaves older adults without transportation

May 2, 2004

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— Mary Margaret Birch misses her car.

The 86-year-old resident of suburban Fairway, Kan., used to buzz around town in her 1988 Chevrolet Cavalier. But after an accident a year ago, it was time to hang up the keys.

For a few months she relied on friends and family to take her for groceries and doctor appointments. Then Johnson County (Kan.) Transit introduced its Easy Ride program, and Birch rediscovered transportation freedom.

"It means a lot to me," she said.

Birch is fortunate in finding a way to get out and about after giving up her keys. A national report indicates that more than half of older Americans who don't drive stay at home on any given day because they lack transportation options.

In the Kansas City area, 24 percent of those 65 or older do not drive, compared with the national average of 21 percent.

The report, "Aging Americans: Stranded Without Options," was prepared by the Surface Transportation Policy Project with support from AARP and the American Public Transportation Assn.

"We have been aware of this problem for years; this quantifies it," AARP board member Bryon Thames said in a teleconference from Washington, D.C.

According to the report, older adults forced to stay at home for lack of transportation can't participate in the community or the economy. That can lead to social isolation and feelings of depression, said Linda Wright, director of the Johnson County Area Agency on Aging.

"We want to keep people living in the community where they want to be and where we want them to be," she said. "We want them to have quality of life. There's a difference between living and having quality to your life."

Thames, a physician, said isolation can greatly affect the health of older Americans. It often means fewer visits to doctors.

Katy Lamm, deputy director of the Johnson County aging agency, said older adults often struggle to remain behind the wheel as long as they can.

Some turn to taxis, but that can be expensive, Lamm said.

She said Medicaid pays for medically necessary transportation. But that doesn't cover trips to the grocery store or to a community center.

John McDonald, state director for AARP in Missouri, said many people might not realize how the elderly population has grown.

He said that in Missouri, people 60 or older outnumbered children in kindergarten through 12th grade in the public school system.

The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority is trying to address the needs of a growing elderly population through a three-year improvement plan that starts in July, Cynthia Baker, director of marketing said. Part of the plan will be additional routes on the ATA's MetroFlex program, which offers door-to-door transportation in a 12-passenger bus.

Where public transportation is available, the report said, older Americans make regular use of it. That's borne out by ridership statistics for the Johnson County Transit services for older adults. Special Edition, a fare-based curb-to-curb service for older or disabled adults and low-income riders, averages 300 one-way trips a day, according to Lauri Henry, the program's operations manager.

Birch likes being able to make her own arrangements with Easy Ride.

"It means I can be independent," she said.

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