WESTBROOK — Exactly 24 years ago, on June 16, 1995, the Independent Transportation Network delivered its first ride, to Florence Edelstein. Operating out of a one-room office rented for $85 a month from the Southern Maine Area Agency on Aging, with a computer and telephone I brought from home and arranged on a donated desk, we sent our news release to the Portland Press Herald, and an intern from Bowdoin arrived. Then, a photographer arrived. I thought, “Maybe we will get a mention.”

ITN volunteer driver Martha Giles, left, and member June Snow enjoy a sunny day at Deering Oaks in Portland in 2007. The late Giles drove enough miles for ITN to go around the world 3½ times; Snow – also now deceased – rode with ITN for years and eventually traded her vehicle for rides through ITN’s CarTrade program. Photo by Stewart Smith

We landed on the front page, with a color photo, above the fold, and the phone rang nonstop for three days. Independent Transportation Network was offering rides for older people, in automobiles, and our drivers were coming right to the door, folding walkers and carrying packages. We were also doing something radical – we were offering service 24/7, for any purpose, and we were charging for rides.

A lot has happened since that day, locally and nationally. Here in the Portland area, we have now delivered over 336,933 rides to 3,598 people. Most of the people we serve are women (73 percent) and the majority live alone (64 percent). The most common ride is for health care (44 percent), followed by personal shopping (21 percent.) The most popular ride for personal needs is a trip to the hairdresser (8 percent), and no other personal shopping need has ever even come close. I suspect it is not vanity. I suspect it is someone to talk to and maybe the only time isolated older people are touched by another person.

The most common age of people currently using ITN is 88. Some of our members have been using the service for 19 years, and many will tell you that ITN has helped them stay in their homes. Nationally, we created ITNAmerica and became the first transportation network for older people, long before Uber and Lyft were even imagined. We now have ITN affiliates in 12 states, from Monterey, California, to Sarasota, Florida. From our office in the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook, we run Rides in Sight, a national hotline for all senior transportation in the United States, and we use the research database we have created to study senior transportation needs with the Centers for Disease Control and universities across the country.

But some things have not changed, at all. Senseless accidents are still happening. Two years ago, Terri Anthoine lost both of her legs when an older driver pinned her between two vehicles in a Portland parking lot. Terri now serves on the ITNPortland Board of Directors; she asked to have the settlement from her accident donated to ITN.

Every day, more older people in the Portland area need alternative transportation. Safe driving ability is not clear cut. Older people transition from the driver’s seat to the passenger seat gradually. They stop driving at night because they can’t see well; they stop driving on the highway because they cannot properly merge with the stream of traffic; they avoid busy times of day, unfamiliar neighborhoods, snowy or rainy conditions, and they fear turning left across traffic because they cannot judge the speed and distance of an oncoming vehicle. When older people do stop driving, they outlive their decision by about 10 years.

I still marvel that there is a service like ITN to supplement their driving when it snows or at night, to keep them safe and help them remain independently in their own homes. ITN depends on voluntary community support to keep the doors open and volunteer drivers to help deliver the rides. Over 97,000 of the rides we’ve delivered in the Portland area alone have been provided by volunteers. (Understanding that there’s a huge unmet need in smaller communities, we recently launched the pilot program ITNCountry. York is the first Maine town to offer rides through ITNCountry; five others – Caribou, China, Fryeburg, Kennebunk and Vassalboro – are involved in ITNCountry planning, as is Waldo County.)

Last Sunday, I delivered four rides for ITN. Two were people with dementia going to church; two were for an 83-year-old member, walking with two canes, who was volunteering for the university. As we enter our 25th anniversary year, we ask the Portland community to support this important service. Please volunteer to drive for ITN and help ensure that this service will be here for the next 25 years, perhaps for you or someone you know or love.

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