Did you know that one-half of Americans 65 and older do not have access to public transportation? And that more than half of all non-drivers 65 and older stay at home in a given day because they don't have transportation options. Those in rural areas and small towns are particularly affected because the transportation options are limited.
But it's important for seniors to remain mobile to keep their social independence with friends and family; to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, and many other life-prolonging benefits.
Table of Contents
Is it Time to Stop Driving?
For some seniors the answer is obvious. They may be too visually impaired to continue driving.
Just consider these vision and driving facts:
- Vision provides about 85% of information we need to make safe decisions when driving.
- A 60-year-old requires 10 times as much light to drive as a 19-year-old.
- A 55-year-old takes eight times longer to recover from glare than a 16-year-old.
- Older drivers can take twice as long to distinguish the flash of brake lights as younger drivers.
A study of the problems seniors face with transportation was conducted by the Beverly Foundation in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Seniordrivers.org summarized their findings with the following themes:
- Seniors continue driving “as long as possible because they are unaware of, or do not believe they have, alternative means of transportation.”
- Seniors “limit their driving or stop driving altogether because of functional difficulties.”
- “By the time they stop driving, many older adults are so disabled that they are unable to use most public and para-transit systems.”
- “Next to health, transportation is the most important issue for seniors.”
Types of Personal Transportation
Volunteer Driver Programs are usually faith-based or nonprofits with a network of volunteers who offer transportation to for shopping, recreation, doctor's appointments and other needs. Reservations are required. Cost is minimal and sometimes free.
Para-transit Service: Private agencies provide transportation using minibuses or small vans to the elderly or those with disabilities.
Door-through-Door Service: Private agencies provide drivers who offer personal assistance (wheelchair help, help with bags, etc.) through a passenger's door and on through the door of their destination and back.
Personal Transportation Options for Seniors
A place to start to find transportation options is your local Area Agency on Aging (AAA).
Most metro areas will have a number of personal transportation options from mom-and-pop operations to larger organizations like the Supplemental Transportation Programs for Seniors (STPs), which are grassroots organizations run by staff and volunteers and funded through grants and donations.
ITN (Independent Transportation Network) America uses paid and volunteer drivers to provide door-to-door service 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. There's a pick up charge and mileage charge with a minimum charge of $9 per location. There's also a $40 membership fee.
Assessing a Transportation Provider
As you begin to research transportation providers, consider these questions:
- Are there any requirements to qualify for the service?
- Are the rides for wheelchair users and the disabled?
- Are family members able to serve as an escort? Is there an additional charge?
- Is the service door-to-door or curb-to-curb?
- What is the service area?
- Will the driver assist with bags, wheelchairs, etc.?
- Are rides provided on the weekends, evenings and holidays?
- If others are riding at the same time, what is the maximum time for pick up and drop off?
- What is the cost?
- How are fees calculated?
- Are there any discounts? E.g., Is my income a factor?
- Is there a membership fee?
- Is a reservation needed? How far in advance?
- Will my insurance pay for rides?
Common Transportation Options
There are a number of specific circumstances that require specialized transportation, but first, let's just cover the basics. You want to go to a movie, or to visit a friend, or maybe it's poker night. It's too far to walk, and your kids aren't around to give you a ride. How do you get there? There are several things you can do.
Depending on where you live, there may be a number of public transportation options open to you, including…
- Light rail
- Shuttles and trams
These methods can take you where you need to go, usually for a relatively low cost. It's a great option for a lot of people, but there can also be a number of factors that decrease its viability in certain situations. Again, it all depends on where you live. In some areas, there might not be a lot of public transit options, or at least not many that go where you need them to. Cities like New York and Chicago have great public transportation. Cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta, not so much.
In areas where public transportation is less efficient, it can end up taking much longer to reach your destination than it would by car. Also, depending on your own level of mobility, making it to the nearest bus stop or train station in the first place may be difficult to impossible.
If public transportation isn't viable, you might be able to use private transportation: e.g. a taxi, or a service such as Uber or Lyft. But these options cost more money than buses and trains, and the farther you go, the more expensive they get. Especially if you're on a fixed income, it's not something you'll be able to manage every day.
Even though there are issues with public transit, there are also ways around them. If you do have problems with mobility, then you may want to consider paratransit: a transportation system specifically designed to accommodate seniors and others with limited mobility.
Paratransit vehicles are often buses or even cabs, specifically equipped to handle wheelchairs and the like. They travel the same approximate routes as your local public transit, but are more flexible in their stops and will pick passengers up at their homes.
In order to use paratransit, first you need to qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In other words, you need to show that your mobility issues prevent you from taking regular public transit. Qualifications are different in different areas, but factors considered include:
- What your disability is
- Your level of functionality and mobility
- Obstacles in your area that may prevent you from reaching public transit on your own
- Environmental conditions
Even if you aren't able to qualify for paratransit, there are still other transportation options offered in some areas, which can accommodate seniors who have trouble getting around. In a lot of communities, you can find transportation services that are either privately run or non-profit and volunteer-based, and which cater specifically to seniors looking to get from point A to point B. AAA even has an online tool that allows you to locate such services in your area.
Looking for affordable transportation options? Check out the video with our Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Hoyt, below!
Medical Transportation Options
Finding transportation to go to the grocery store, or to visit friends, is one thing. Finding transportation to go to a doctor's appointment is another matter entirely. Showing up to these appointments, whether it be a test, a medical procedure, or just an ordinary checkup, is vital to your health.
Because of this, relying on public transportation might not be the best option in medical situations. Fortunately, when medical necessity is a factor, certain other options are made cheaper and more convenient.
Insurance Covered Transportation
Depending on your insurance provider, your health coverage may include a certain amount of transportation for medical purposes. In that case, a car, van, or other vehicle will pick you up at your home and take you to your appointment. There may, however, be limitations, such as the number of trips you can take per month. Call your insurance provider and find out what your options are and how to take advantage of them.
If you have Medicaid, a significant amount of your medical transportation is covered. If you have Medicare, however, then unfortunately, transportation to routine doctor's visits likely won't be available to you through your insurance. However, depending on your situation, you may be able to utilize an ambulance in certain non-emergency situations, if you have a written note from your doctor, stating that other forms of transportation are a danger to your health, and an ambulance is medically necessary.
Low Cost Alternatives
Even if your insurance doesn't cover transportation to routine doctor's appointments, there are often independent services you can explore. Many areas have local organizations that provide low cost, non-emergency medical transportation to seniors who don't drive, and/or have limited mobility. Again, do your research and find out what services are convenient to you, and what their options are.
Paying for Transportation
Whether it's important medical transportation or just a run of the mill trip into town, once you've secured your ride, you need to know how you're paying for it. If you're living on a fixed income, this might not be easy to do. Public transit may only be a few dollars, but when you're on a tight budget, every dollar counts. So what can you do to cover, or at least mitigate, the costs of transportation?
If you use public transit, many cities offer senior discounts, in one form or another. You may have to register for a specific program, or apply for a special senior bus or train pass, or take some other action in order to take advantage of the reduced fare. Some cities, such as Chicago, even allow seniors to ride public transportation free of charge! Research your area's various forms of public transportation and see what they offer.
As we mentioned earlier, many communities also have special, often non-profit and volunteer-based services, which provide medical and other forms of transportation to seniors who need help getting around. These services are often door to door, and may be offered at a low cost or even free of charge.
Another option to look into is ride sharing. Taxis can get expensive quickly, but apps like Uber and Lyft have options like ride sharing that can save you money. A ride share is, essentially, a carpool. Rather than having a vehicle simply pick you up and drop you off, it takes multiple people at one time to different destinations, thus defraying the cost for each of them.
Assisted Living Services
If you're living in an assisted living center, then the facility itself may offer its own transportation services, or partner with an independent service. They may provide you with a discounted rate, or the cost up to a certain amount may be included in your monthly rent. Ask what options they have available. Even if they don't have their own low cost transportation options, they can probably recommend some in the area that can meet your needs and your budget.
Long Distance Transportation
You've got transportation around your community covered, but what if you need to go across the country? Maybe you're moving to another state. Maybe an old friend has had an emergency, and you need to go to them. Maybe you just want to go on vacation. Whatever the circumstances, travel can be hard as you get older. But that doesn't mean it can't be done. So it's important to know how to handle it, if and when the situation arises.
The first thing to consider is your overall health. Certain conditions can make travel difficult or uncomfortable, including…
- Physical Disabilities
- Heart Disease
- Sickle Cell Disease
- Mental Health Issues
Talk to your doctor before you leave, to see if any medical issues may make a long distance trip difficult, or if they have any recommendations for how to travel, or what can be done to make it easier.
You also need to determine how you'll be traveling. Will someone be driving you? Will you be flying? Will you be taking a train or a bus? And will you be traveling alone, or will someone else go with you?
Especially if you have limited mobility, it's better to travel with a close friend or family member. Someone who knows your medical history and is familiar with your needs can help you if any issues arise, and provide pertinent information in the event of an emergency.
Traveling During COVID-19
Traveling by Car
A road trip can be a lot of fun, but it can also be hard on you, if you're not prepared. Remember, it's anywhere from several hours to several days sitting in a confined space. So first of all, make sure you're traveling with someone whose company you'll be able to stand for that long. Second, make sure their vehicle is equipped to seat you comfortably for the duration of the trip, as well as store any apparatus you may have, such as a wheelchair or walker.
The roads may be uneven or unpredictable, so if you're prone to carsickness, be sure to take something for it at regular intervals. Budget as many stops as you need into the itinerary as well, for food, sleep, bathroom breaks, or just to stretch your legs. And be sure to bring plenty of your own music with you, in case, somewhere between Texas and Oklahoma, you can't seem to find a good radio station.
Remember that the most important thing isn't to get you to your destination quickly, but to get there safely and comfortably, with as little stress as possible. If that makes the trip take a little longer, then so be it. They say getting there is half the fun, anyway!
Traveling by Air
If you're flying, check with the airline, as well as any and all airports you'll be stopping at, to see if they can accommodate your needs, whatever they may be. Will they be able to…
- Provide you with a wheelchair?
- Help you through airport security?
- If you have a layover, provide someone to get you from one gate to the other in time for your next flight?
- Cater to any special needs, including dietary restrictions, while you're on the plane?
It's important to check in advance to see what specific accommodations can be provided, and let the airline know what your needs are, so they can be prepared. If a particular airline or airport doesn't have a good track record in that department, it might behoove you to seek out a different one for your travel needs.
The same goes for buses, trains, and other forms of travel. Accommodations may be more difficult in these instances, especially since it's likely to be a longer trip. So always check first to see what they offer and whether or not they can meet your needs and get you to your destination safely.
Sometimes you have to transport more than just yourself. If you're moving to a new location, you'll also have to transport all of your worldly belongings. As a senior with mobility issues, this often means moving into an assisted living facility. And whether it's across the country or just up the street, it may pose some challenges.
The first step is to determine what you're able to take with you. This can lead to some tough choices. Especially if you've spent years or even decades living in the same place and accumulating more and more things, and now you're moving to a space that's much smaller. Choices will have to be made. You like the painting of a duck you got at a yard sale six years ago, but will you really miss it if it doesn't come with you to your new space? Or will it just be taking up extra room?
Get a couple of family members or trusted friends to help you go through all of your stuff and decide what's going to happen to it. Separate it into four categories:
- Things you're taking with you – What you're going to need or want on a fairly regular basis in your new space. This includes clothes you wear frequently, basic appliances like your TV, toaster, and microwave, your top books, movies, and music, etc. There will be a lot less in this category if you're moving into a place that's already furnished.
- Things you're putting into storage – Items you don't use regularly, but still want to maintain access to in a pinch. If you have a large collection of anything (paintings, figurines, vinyl records, etc.), this is where it will go. Most of your furniture can go into storage, along with family heirlooms and items of sentimental value.
- Things you're giving away – The things you don't need anymore and can simply get rid of. Tell your friends and family who are helping you pack that if they want any of these things, they're welcome to them—with your prior approval, of course. Once they're done picking it over, you can donate what remains to Goodwill.
- Things you're throwing away – If nobody else wants it, or if it's broken and unsalvageable, it goes in the garbage.
Once all the decisions have been made, everything you're taking with you needs to be packed up and transported to your new place—while everything else needs to be gotten rid of in whatever manner you've decided. If you can, get those same family and friends to pack everything up into boxes, load it onto the moving truck, etc. If you have the money, you can also hire professional movers. There are some who specialize in helping seniors and can make the process easier.
Long Distance Moving Options
If you're moving to another state, then you may need to hire long distance movers. This can be more expensive. If you are planning on putting some of your things in storage, then it might be easier to rent a storage facility in your current location instead of where you're moving to, in order to limit the amount that needs to be transported.
Certain companies, such as Pods, provide flexible long distance moving options that can be helpful. You rent a portable storage container and have either your family or hired professionals pack it up with whatever you're transporting. Then, the company will send someone to drive the container to your new location and drop it off a few days later. Your family can then unpack the container at your leisure and, once it's empty, schedule a day and time for it to be picked up. Depending on your situation, this can be a cheaper and more convenient way of getting your things to where they need to be.
Tools and Apps for Senior Transportation
One of the main things to keep in mind when it comes to transportation for seniors is the importance of conducting your own research, in order to find out what options are available in your area, which meet your needs and fall into your price range. Fortunately, there are a number of apps and other tools to help you. Here are a few that may prove helpful:
- Uber and Lyft – Both great apps for getting a ride quickly and conveniently. They'll pick you up at your house and take you where you need to go, usually for a relatively low price. But even so, use them sparingly if you're on a tight budget.
- Embark – Helps you plan your route in at least 12 different major public transit systems across the country
- Eldercare Locator – Allows you to search by city or zip code for transportation services, along with help with a host of other senior-related issues.
In addition to these, AARP also has tools and info to help seniors obtain low cost transportation, and, as we mentioned before, so does AAA. You should also look at the websites for your insurance provider and your local public transit system to see if they have any tools that can be helpful in getting you from one place to another.
Just because you're getting older doesn't mean you have to stop moving. With a little work and the right resources, you can find plenty of ways of getting around town cheaply, safely, and conveniently, no matter what your mobility is like.
Seniors maintaining their independence is crucial for healthy and active aging. A big part of independence is transportation. If you're unable to driver, consider using personal transportation whether it's a large service like ITNAmerica or your local para-transit service.