WASHINGTON — Katherine Freund is well aware of the complexity of the transportation problem confronting the nation – and particularly rural states such as Maine – as an estimated 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day in the U.S.
Lack of public transit, limited pools of taxpayer dollars and senior citizens’ reluctance to “burden” anyone else are a few of the challenges communities face as they struggle to help older residents who either cannot or should not get behind the wheel.
But Freund told a congressional panel on Wednesday that, based on own experiences in Maine and elsewhere, at least one solution “is sitting in driveways from coast to coast, if people would just open their eyes and see.”
“I think a huge thing that could happen, perhaps as a result of this hearing or other federal action, would be to awaken the American people to the social need . . . and encourage everybody to look around them and give an older person a ride,” said Freund, founder and president of the Independent Transportation Network, or ITNAmerica, a community-based transportation service for senior citizens.
The Senate Special Committee on Aging heard a variety of ideas on Wednesday to a growing problem with no simple answer.
Millions of senior citizens across the country already struggle to get around without a car. By 2050, the number of Americans who are age 65 or older is projected to more than double – from 40 million to 88.5 million – while the number of people age 85 or older will increase five times, according to figures provided Wednesday.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said transportation is a “daunting challenge” often overshadowed by the focus on health care, Social Security and seniors’ financial security. Inadequate transportation has many impacts, she said.
“We talk a lot about doctor’s appointments and grocery stores, but there is also the issue of social isolation, not being able to drive to go see your friends or to keep up with family members,” said Collins, who requested Wednesday’s hearing. “That matters too and gets even less attention.”
The challenges are especially acute in Maine, already the oldest state in the nation. Public transportation options are so scarce in the rural state that 90 percent of seniors who don’t drive rely on friends and family to get around, according to the Maine Office of Aging and Disability Services.
“It’s a complex issue,” said Gerald Queally, president and CEO of Spectrum Generations, the Agency on Aging that serves Central Maine.
“It’s more than just a bus route. It is more than just highways . . . or a schedule,” Queally said in an phone interview from Maine. “It’s really about meeting the seniors where they are and providing the services that they need to age in place.”
Virginia Dize, co-director of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging’s Center on Senior Transportation, emphasized the importance of public-private partnerships and said Congress can help by breaking down barriers that discourage that collaboration.
Dize said calls flowing into Agencies on Aging across the country underscore the need, despite improvements.
“We had more than 18,000 calls about transportation between July 2012 and June 2013,” Dize said, citing an annual survey of Agencies on Aging nationwide. “And those numbers are increasing. Even though people struggle with financial issues, health care issues and so forth, transportation remains No. 1.”
Therese McMillan, deputy administrator with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration, told Collins and committee chairman Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., that the issue is on her agency’s agenda.
But while funding for transportation programs targeting seniors and disabled adults has increased, budget cuts have reduced the department’s ability to coordinate multi-agency programs.
ITNAmerica was held up as one example of the type of nonprofit service that can fill a need. First launched in the Portland area, ITNAmerica now operates in more than 20 urban and suburban areas around the country and has offered more than 600,000 rides.
Freund said Wednesday they have been developing a model that could be applied to rural areas of Maine or other states but that they need funding to launch it – preferably from a “venture philanthropist,” she added.
Seniors participating in ITNAmerica pay for rides from volunteer drivers using a pre-paid credit system. The service is similar to a taxi service – but often at lower rates – and is available to seniors or disabled members 24 hours a day for any purpose.
While the service is not free, Freund said she believes members find “there is dignity and independence in paying for oneself.” New affiliate programs are allowed to accept public money at first but are expected to stop using taxpayer dollars within five to eight years.
While a nonprofit organization, ITNAmerica only got off the ground because of the support of and collaboration with other entities, Freund said. For instance, Collins and others of Maine’s delegation secured federal start-up grants and the Southern Maine Agency on Aging served as an “incubator” to the young program.
That collaboration and community support is key, she said later Wednesday.
“I don’t think it’s a problem you can solve just by throwing money at it,” she said. “You need support from the community, from government, from people to do it. But the good part is it’s totally possible to do.”
Kevin Miller can be reached at 317-6256 or at:[email protected]