Elders Donate Their Cars, Get Free Rides

As his health declined , Irving Anzmann of Portland, Maine, decided it was no longer safe to drive. But he still needed to visit a dialysis center three times a week.  It was there that he learned about a local service for the elderly that would give him and his wife door-to-door rides in exchange for donating their car. 
  
The 84-year-old used the service offered by Independent Transportation Network (ITN) for the last few months of his life, and his wife, Necia, has been getting free rides ever since. "He set up a good thing for me. He didn't want me to get out there on the roads alone," she said.
  
The Antzmanns were fortunate. Many older people are stranded once they decide to give up their keys.
  
Policymakers in many states cite a shortage of appropriate transportation as the No. 1 problem facing their aging populations. Improving transportation options for the elderly was among the top three priorities adopted by delegates at the White House Conference on Aging, an event convened almost every 10 years since 1961 and which concluded a five-day summit Dec. 14.

Despite increased overall state spending on public transportation, many elderly people in suburban and rural areas either don't have access to mass transit or find it too confusing or physically challenging. They are left with no way to get to the doctor's office and grocery store, much less community events and the homes of friends and family.
  
Maine's ITN program makes it easier for elders to give up driving, because they don't have to face the daunting task of learning how to navigate a public transportation system designed primarily for younger people who commute to and from work.
In return for donating their cars, seniors receive a number of free rides, based on the value of their vehicle. "It's like a reverse mortgage on their car," said founder Katherine Freund.  
  
Elders also can volunteer to drive in return for free rides later, when they decide to give up their cars—a sort of "transportation social security," she said. Many riders who donate cars choose to give their free credits to needier elders through a fund called the "Road Scholarship."

Maine's ITN project—initially funded by AARP, the U.S. Department of Transportation and private donations—was started with the hopes of expanding it nationwide.  The Maine Legislature stepped in to help when the group received so many donated cars that it needed an exemption from state auto dealership rules to be allowed to sell some of its vehicles to pay for gas, maintenance and other operating expenses.
  
The bill, signed by Gov. John Baldacci (D) this year, will help expand the project by exempting nonprofit senior transportation services from dealership requirements and incorporating a previous law that prohibits auto insurance companies from raising rates for volunteer drivers.
  
Launched in 1995, ITN is available only in the Portland, Maine, area. But Freund hopes the program will be expanded throughout the state and country.
  
Connecticut recently passed a law allocating seed money to launch a program patterned after ITN, and legislators in Florida, New York and Rhode Island are considering similar senior transportation projects.
States may need to provide start-up funds to re-create Maine's ITN project, but once the community-based program starts operating, public funds are not tapped because vehicles are donated, drivers are volunteers and operating expenses are covered by fees paid by riders who either do not donate cars or have exceeded their number of free rides.
  
While ITN works well in the Portland area, "it's not a silver bullet," Freund said. The program is designed to serve suburban areas, which have a high density of older people and typically are not well-served by public transportation. It is not suitable for rural areas where trips to the doctor may be as much as 200 miles away, she explained.
  
Even when available, public transportation isn't necessarily the best alternative for senior citizens. "Have you ever tried to read a bus schedule?" asked Susan Samson, associate planner with Florida's area agency on aging of Pasco-Pinellas.
One of the most common reason elders stop driving is dementia and an inability to deal with the stress of the roadways.  In those cases, public transportation is not a realistic option, she explained. 
Local volunteer programs such as ITN can fill some of the gaps left by inadequate federal and state funding for public transportation. The cost of maintaining the country's existing public transportation network is $14.8 billion annually. To improve current systems to meet the needs of the country's burgeoning elder population would cost $43.9 billion annually, according to a recent study by the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STTP).
  
Four in five Americans ages 65 or older worry that they will be stranded and unable to get around when they give up their cars, according to a recent survey by the American Public Transportation Association.  Half of people ages 65 or older do not drive, and more than half of those stay at home during any given day, according to the STTP study.
  
Contact Christine Vestal at cvestal@stateline.org