No driving for Miss Daisy: Suburban seniors won’t age in place very well

BY KAY SEVERINSEN

July 8, 2011 – My grandpa kept driving his old black Plymouth to the store and to church on Sundays until he was 93. He drove slower and slower over the years, creeping up to green lights in case they were about to turn yellow, deaf to any honking horns.

He didn’t want to quit driving or to give up his independence. But after he plowed into some road construction he turned in his keys and moved to assisted living. His is a familiar story, but one that is becoming even more common. Baby boomers will start turning 65 this year and will represent 20 percent of the elderly population within 20 years.

In the decades ahead, they will have more trouble driving, but because many have lived their lives in car-dependent suburbia, they are likely to have few options for getting around.

A new report from Transportation for America, “Aging in Place – Stuck without Options,” says that in just four years, 15.5 million baby boomers will live in communities with little or no access to public transportation. The national report was based on an analysis by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, based in Chicago.

“The baby boom generation grew up and reared their own children in communities that, for the first time in human history, were built on the assumption that everyone would be able to drive an automobile,” said John Robert Smith, president and CEO of Reconnecting America and co-chair of Transportation for America. “What happens when people in this largest generation ever, with the longest predicted life span ever, outlive their ability to drive for everything?”

As they age, they will have no way to get to the doctor, see friends or family, or shop without either public transportation or someone to give them a ride.

Though baby boomers have been game changers throughout their lives, traditionally few Americans move after they retire. This means most will “age in place” in neighborhoods where daily activities require car trips.

Recent studies have found that non-driving seniors make significantly fewer trips to the doctor, are much less likely to shop or dine out, see friends and family or just get out of the house. And even those who do drive say they are worried about the cost of gas.

Organizations like Transportation for America and the Center for Neighborhood Technology, among others, have urged changes to our national policy on the use of federal tax dollars. While billions have been spent on roadways, comparatively little has been spent on public transportation.

I am a big supporter of walkable neighborhoods and the new report and its proponents have a strong case. But much of the report focuses on the notion that better public transit is the No. 1 answer to the problem.

However, my question would be: How do they expect adults, who are too old or frail to drive, to be able to walk to a bus stop, wait for a train in the rain, climb aboard a non-kneeling transport, or figure out a color-coded map? Envision your elderly, low-vision loved one, looking for a bus stop or waiting in the dark for a late bus.

A small part of the CNT report does address this issue and notes that many communities are making inroads into transporting those who are too old to drive or take public transportation.

A suite of services called “mobility management” is a relatively newer idea that addresses the varying needs of the population. A government agency called United We Ride suggests that good public transportation acknowledges the fact that not everyone lives along a highly traveled public transportation route. Ride sharing, van pooling and similar options may work where high-volume transit will not.

The challenges of retirement will be especially high for those on low fixed incomes. AAA (formerly the American Automobile Association) reports in “Your Driving Costs 2011” that the average annual cost of owning an automobile and driving between 10,000 and 15,000 miles ranges from $7,600 to $8,700. These estimates are based on an average fuel cost of only $2.88 per gallon, so obviously they don’t reflect auto costs this year. For a senior living at or below the poverty line as defined by the Census Bureau ($10,458 for a single person), the average cost of owning an automobile would consume 78 percent of income.

According to a recent study, most baby boomers think they will be going strong until age 80 or beyond, but a recent survey by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago indicates that more than 20 percent of seniors age 65 and older – nearly 7 million people – do not drive at all.

For short distances, it might be good for many elderly to walk, but oftentimes the walking route is not safe. Crime-ridden neighborhoods, crumbling sidewalks, short walk lights and a lack of benches make a walk to the store arduous for seniors even if it is nearby.

From 2000-2007, seniors age 75 and older accounted for 13 percent of pedestrian fatalities even though they make up just 6.1 percent of the total population, the report states.

So how are today’s seniors managing in suburban areas?

According to the report, many are ride sharing. They tend to feel like they are a burden on someone else, but for 40 percent of those older than 85, there is no other choice.

By 2015, 6 percent of suburban Chicago seniors ages 65-79 are projected to have poor transit access, while the percentage of suburban and exurban seniors with poor transit will rise to 66 percent. The total number of area seniors with poor access is projected to increase by 153,550 by 2015.

The underlying fact, as we all know too well, is that many of today’s seniors are solving their problem by continuing to drive, long past the age when it is safe.

“I’m a perfectly good driver,” states your 84-year-old dad in that tone you still dare not defy. “I’ve never had a ticket.”

Are you going to take his keys away? Go ahead and try.

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