When three-year-old Ryan Walsh was hit by an elderly driver in 1988, his mother, Katherine Freund, did something that most people would find difficult (if not impossible) to do.
“I put myself in the shoes of the 84-year-old gentleman who was in the car,” Freund says. “I wouldn’t want to be the person who ran over a child. It was a horrible situation for everyone involved, and he shouldn’t have been behind the wheel. So, I asked myself, how did it happen? Why was this man driving when he shouldn’t have been?"
These questions eventually led Freund to investigate potential solutions for preventing other families from being affected by unsafe older drivers. First, she considered creating a foolproof test to screen for hazardous drivers and prevent them from operating cars, but even a perfectly developed driving assessment wouldn’t address an important underlying issue for seniors: They have a deep desire to remain mobile and independent.
Freund views crashes involving older adults as a symptom of a larger problem. “The inability to drive safely is a function of age-related change. It’s not the person’s fault,” she admits.
Older Americans want to remain independent and be able to go where they want, when they want. We can take the keys away, but the problem is that they don’t have access to alternative transportation that allows them to safely get from point A to point B. “Older people need a ride,” Freund explains. “The challenge then becomes, how do we give them that ride?"
An Age-Related Problem That Can Be Fixed
Freund’s son eventually healed and overcame the traumatic brain injury he sustained in the accident, but her desire to solve the problem of unsafe older drivers endured.
For more than two decades, Freund has dedicated herself to finding a way to provide seniors with the transportation they need to maintain their independence and quality of life and to reduce safety risks for the public. “There are so many health challenges associated with aging that we don’t have solutions for, but we can fix this one,” she urges.
Freund developed a fix in 1995. The initiative was called the Independent Transportation Network (ITN), which offered transportation alternatives in Portland, Maine, for older adults who could no longer drive. In 2006, after years of testing, research and funding from philanthropic organizations, government agencies and AARP, ITN blossomed into ITNAmerica—a national non-profit network of community-based senior transportation programs.
ITNAmerica affiliates are currently operating in California, Nevada, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut and Maine. Through these affiliates, adults age 60 and older can purchase a membership for $50, which allows them to schedule local rides 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for any reason.
Affiliate rates differ by location, but there is a base charge for pickup and a per-mile charge that varies depending on the time of day when the ride is needed. Seniors can enjoy discounted rates for rides that they have prearranged. Many of the ITNAmerica drivers are volunteers from the local community, and, unlike taxis, they can help their passengers get in and out of the car and to and from their front door.
Rides can be shared or solo, taken on the fly or scheduled in advance. Drivers do not accept tips and no money is exchanged inside the car. All transactions are conducted through a dedicated online account where seniors (and their family members) can earn, gift and purchase ride credits.
Paying and Planning for Transportation
Transportation is the second-largest expense facing the typical American household. According to Freund, who has testified on this topic before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, 20 percent of the average family’s income is spent on paying for a way to get around town.
“Transportation is expensive, yet there is no way for people to plan ahead for transportation needs the same way you would other aspects of your retirement,” she says.
Coming up with an affordable option for helping older adults remain mobile in their community has been challenging yet largely successful. ITNAmerica provided seniors and visually impaired individuals with more than 82,000 rides in 2017 alone.
In addition to paying money for rides, passengers who no longer need their own cars can trade them in for ride credits. Individuals who can still drive safely but want to prepare for their own future transportation needs can also earn advance credits by volunteering to drive older adults around.
The ITN model is quickly spreading across the country. A new initiative, ITNCountry is currently in the works, which gives nonprofits and government organizations in rural areas and small towns the ability to implement their own community-based transportation programs. ITNAmerica has also conducted thorough research to identify Trusted Transportation Partners (TTPs) in communities where ITN affiliates are not yet established.
Discussing Driving with Seniors
Talking about driving issues is touchy for many families. For seniors, the ability to drive is synonymous with independence, and taking the keys away has a big impact on their real and perceived quality of life. Freund has guided more than 500 families through this conversation (including her own), and she says that the key to easing tensions is tackling it early on, before a crisis occurs.
“The transition away from driving occurs over about a decade,” Freund estimates. “It starts with not driving at night, in bad weather, on the interstate or in unfamiliar neighborhoods.”
ITNAmerica plays an important role in this transition. In fact, nearly half of the people who participate in the rides program still have a driver’s license, while 29 percent still drive themselves sometimes. “It’s important to help older adults with transportation that will supplement their driving, while they can still drive. This makes not driving at all less intimidating when it finally happens,” Freund remarks.
Creating a Transportation Plan for Seniors
In addition to ITN, there are other options for helping an aging loved one get around, each with its own pros and cons. Public transportation is an excellent, low-cost resource, but many smaller communities and rural areas do not have adequate systems to support residents who cannot drive. Uber and Lyft have also revolutionized the on-demand transportation market, but these services are only available in certain areas and many seniors are not comfortable using smartphones or cannot afford to buy one.
Each community has its own blend of transportation programs and services for older adults and their caregivers, but they can be difficult to seek out. The easiest way to track down providers is to contact an elder’s local Area Agency on Aging (AAA). ITNAmerica has also researched communities nationwide and built a comprehensive database of senior transportation options called Rides in Sight.
Ultimately, every conversation that involves plans for an aging loved one’s future should be approached with love and include multiple options for solving each issue. “People know how to make good decisions,” Freund acknowledges. “But it’s hard to make decisions when you don’t have options.”