Louise Baggett cocks her ear to hear the doorbell. Shes waiting for Paula Kartus, a volunteer driver with the nonprofit JET Express, for a ride to the hairdresser.
By DIANE STAFFORD
The Kansas City Star
Baggett used to make the 15-minute trip on her own. But macular degeneration an eye condition thats like a gray scarf pulled over my head took away her ability to drive.
And so the aging former folk dancer now slides a walker carefully across her kitchen floor as Kartus shepherds her to the car.
The wonderful thing about this service is that I dont have to impose on friends, Baggett says of the ride, for which she pays $5. And Ive met some delightful people who volunteer.
Although Baggett got her ride, the patchwork of volunteer and publicly subsidized ride services that exists for the elderly in the Kansas City area is sadly deficient. Theyre all limited by geography, by riders incomes or by availability of volunteer drivers.
If the areas elderly transportation system is challenged now, think of the demands on it in 20 years when the over-65 population has doubled.
Todays fractured web of family, friends and tax- or grant-supported van services wont cut it for the growing numbers of frail, disabled or poor elderly who cant hire cabs or cant make their way to curbs for van or bus pickups.
Well finally have to face up to the very nature of Kansas City its sprawl, its state line, its scores of towns and cities. And most of all, its reliance on a family vehicle.
We have more highway miles per capita than most other American cities, and we have lots of people living in manicured suburbs they sometimes need to leave in order to see the doctor, buy groceries or go to church.
Weve created the perfect storm of a car-dependent community, said one transportation planner.
Experts say that old people who surrender their car keys need a robust transportation system that is:
Door to door, like Baggett enjoyed, and on demand. It should stretch across city and county lines.
Subsidized by a regional transportation tax.
Affordable for the poor elderly.
Not dependent on the good will and sturdiness of volunteers, many of whom are retirement age themselves.
Baggetts 15-minute drive to the hairdresser, for example, crossed a state line and traversed two cities. But the Jewish Elder Transit service, like others, puts a perimeter around the area it serves.
The ideal system isnt a better bus system. Its not a light-rail network. It would, for example, take someone who lives in Lees Summit to her doctors office in Overland Park or to her church in south Kansas City.
Kay Bybee, 88, and her husband, J.B., 93, give a glimpse into what the areas transportation needs are and will be.
The Bybees are contented residents of Grand Court, a senior living complex at 119th Street and Lamar Avenue in Overland Park, except for one thing:
We sold our car, so we have to call at least three days ahead of our doctors appointments if we want to use Catch-A-Ride, she said of a Johnson County transportation program that relies on volunteer drivers.
It usually works out for them.
The volunteers are so kind and helpful, but I do know that they have to search for volunteers, Bybee said. And its hard to make sure someone can help my husband, who uses a walker.
Brent Never, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, led a recent survey of older residents in six Kansas City area neighborhoods. Transportation loomed as a huge hurdle.
One lady in Johnson County said she can see her CVS pharmacy outside her window, but shes on a suburban cul-de-sac and cant get there by walking, he said. She would have to drive to get there. But can you imagine being elderly, having issues with sight or mobility, and trying to get out onto Metcalf?
David Renz, director of the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership, said it is obvious that things must change, but in the short term its impossible to adequately fund a system.
Voters have rarely made elderly transportation a priority for public funds. Getting voter approval for a regional tax would be nearly insurmountable in a region that straddles a state line and includes nine counties and 120 municipalities.
An ideal system would need tax support. A 2009 report by Renzs center noted that what senior riders were paying, on average, covered only 12 percent of medical-related transportation costs and not more than 5 percent of the costs to provide senior transportation for other purposes.
Reports note that about one-sixth of the areas older residents have federal poverty-level incomes. Thus they may be unlikely to afford private cab fares.
Nearly alone among area philanthropic donors, the Mr. Goodcents Foundation has devoted itself to funding transportation studies and services for seniors.
Jim Courtney, executive director of the foundation, is among planners probing deeply into the areas transportation problem.
When you stop driving in this community, it creates a barrier to enjoy all the things in this community, Courtney said. Were living longer, but can we live well?
In 2007, a Kansas City Framework for Senior Mobility project began with support from the Mr. Goodcents Foundation and the Jewish Heritage Foundation. As part of the project, the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership has studied the heck out of this particularly difficult challenge, Renz said.
But its eventual goal to have that seamless door-to-door, regional transportation system for the elderly is far distant. Charted on a map, such a system would look like an explosion in a spaghetti factory, a splattered tangle of routes.
Just because a bus line goes through your neighborhood, that doesnt mean you have access to anywhere in the metro area, UMKCs Never said. And it doesnt mean you can get to the bus stop or into the store.
There are some public steps in the right direction, and some area communities are in better shape than others to help their senior residents get around.
Liberty, for example, is a relatively good city to age in place, planners say. Its senior transportation system isnt a fixed-route bus line, and it doesnt just limit trips to medical visits like some senior transportation services do because of limited funding or volunteers.
Some of the northern Johnson County suburbs Mission, Merriam, Roeland Park and Fairway have linked their publicly supported Easy Ride shuttles to ease seniors travel among those cities, Courtney noted.
But thats good only if your doctors office is within those boundaries.
Similarly, Shawnee and Olathe have community shuttles a good start, but it doesnt help someone whose doctors office is in Kansas City.
Publicly supported systems generally have modest fees for riders, often just $1 to $4 a trip, particularly if the rider qualifies for low-income reasons. Volunteer services rely on suggested donations. One area program suggests $10 per trip.
But cost sometimes is less of a barrier than availability of service. Last winters snow and cold snaps were a case in point: The pool of drivers shrank when the volunteers didnt want to tackle the roads or sidewalks.
In cooperation with the Mid-America Regional Council, the mobility project is slowly trying to craft a regional transportation plan.
Its more than a lack of buses, Courtney emphasized when he itemized the areas shortfalls.
Its having a bus stop at the edge of a parking lot with a quarter-mile hike to the store door. Its no benches in or outside the store. Its no way to handle packages if you use a walker. Its not having enough mobile shopping buggies. All of those are barriers.
Some cities are drilling down even further to address mobility needs.
In New York, for example, pedestrian crosswalk time was increased at more than 400 intersections after a study determined that older people with slower gaits werent making it across the street in time.
In some metropolitan areas, zoning rules have been changed to allow bus stops to be placed just outside store doors rather than hundreds of yards across parking lots at the street.
Local transportation planners, searching for senior transportation models around the country that deal with the same multicounty, multicity framework as the Kansas City area, fixed on a three-county area in northern Virginia.
Planners there asked for a centralized and publicly funded information service, seamless transportation across county lines, a marketing campaign and funded training to help seniors continue driving their own vehicles if they wished.
It remains a model for what could be.
In the Kansas City area, planners are hoping perhaps within five years that there will be a central authority over senior mobility. This year an area transportation advisory council was formed.
But planners acknowledge that for now theres simply no money and no priority to marshal public funds, philanthropic support and fee-based services to make that seamless regional system happen.
And it must.
Our parents were raised to be independent, said John Carney, vice president at the Center for Practical Bioethics and leader in the areas study of aging issues. Many are loath to think about surrendering their homes, moving out of their neighborhoods or giving up their car keys. They need transportation. So far we dont have the capacity to meet their needs.
Tomorrow: A growing need for remodeling, technology and caregivers to help the elderly stay in their homes.
A downloadable Senior Transportation Resource Guide, listing about 40 elderly transportation options in the Kansas City area including bus, van, taxi and private vehicle service has been produced by Jewish Family Services JET Express program.
Dawn Herbet, director of older-adult initiatives, has tried to keep track of all the eligibility requirements, geographic coverage, routes, costs and nature of the services. Programs range from publicly funded vans to volunteer-driven cars, from fixed-route, curb-to-curb service to user-requested door-through-door service.
A link to the Senior Transportation Resource Guide is at KansasCity.com.
Limited print copies are available by calling 913-327-8239.
To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.