Saturday, June 6, 2009

Drivers help seniors keep independence

Published in Prime Time, a special section of the Lincoln Journal-Star, January 27, 2009
Copyright 2009 Lincoln Journal Star. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

Several years ago, when Lorrayne Livingston was forced to give up driving because of macular degeneration, it was the independence she missed the most. Her friends were willing to take her shopping, but she always felt rushed.

"It seems like nobody can do anything leisurely nowadays," she said. "I used to go to the stores and just kind of mill around."

When Livingston, now 81, heard about the Lincoln Seniors Transportation Program a few months ago, one of the first places she wanted to go was Westfield Gateway. She'd been there on quick errands, but she didn't really know her way around the remodeled mall. She arranged for a volunteer to drop her off, and she spent several hours exploring by herself and even had lunch before the volunteer returned to pick her up.

Next, she asked for a ride to the Hy-Vee at 84th and Holdrege streets. She lived near another grocery store but wanted to see someplace new. Now she goes there on a regular basis, spending up to six hours in the store. She takes her time looking at things and often eats both breakfast and lunch in the deli.

"I don't go anyplace unless there's food," she said. "You cook for yourself so long; it's always nice to eat out."

Once a month, volunteers also take her to a reading group at her church.

She's made a list of places she'd like to go in the future, such as a Native powwow, a Cinco de Mayo celebration and a Gospel music concert. She'd also like to spend some time at the University of Nebraska, reminiscing about her student days there and exploring the large-print section of Love Library.

"You always know you can get a ride, and they're always comfortable," she said. "They're always good drivers."

The Lincoln Seniors Transportation Program, a collaborative effort of the Lincoln Seniors Foundation and the Lincoln Area Agency on Aging, was started in January 2008 to provide transportation to Lincoln seniors.

Several years ago, the foundation surveyed area seniors about their most pressing needs.
"Overwhelmingly, the respondents said that maintaining their independence and ability to get around was extremely important," said Alice Skultety, foundation president. Their survey found that 15 percent of Lincoln seniors had given up driving completely and 50 percent limited their driving or had eliminated nighttime driving.

National statistics indicate that, on average, men live six years after they quit driving; women live 11 years, said June Pederson, director of the Lincoln Area Agency on Aging.
"That's a long time to depend on taxis, friends and children for rides," she said.

The Lincoln Seniors Transportation Program was modeled after a successful program in Austin, Texas. Participation is open to anyone age 65 or older living in Lincoln. Riders are picked up at the curb of their home and taken anywhere within the city limits except medical appointments or the airport.

Coordinator Deb Hynek said the program has about 100 riders and 20 volunteer drivers. Riders need to be ambulatory. Many use walkers or canes, but the program is not able to take someone using a wheelchair.

Participants may request up to two rides per week, but at least one must be an essential trip, such as to the grocery store, beauty salon, bank, legal or professional appointment, or religious service. Non-essential trips include social events, entertainment, eating out or clothes shopping. The suggested donation is $8 for a round-trip.

Volunteers must provide their own vehicles and are given background checks and a 30-minute driving evaluation. Drivers may volunteer as little as two hours per month, but most enjoy the experience so much they give rides at least weekly.

Mark Richardson, a first-year law student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been volunteering since the program started. It's been a rewarding experience for him.

"People are very grateful, and they have much more life experience than I have myself," he said. "So the conversations that we have are something that I always look forward to whenever I'm getting ready to give a ride. I know it's not a big thing, but it still makes you feel really good to have done a little something to make the community a little better."

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