AUGUSTA — The vast majority of senior citizens in Maine, where 72 percent of the population doesn’t have access to public transportation, plan to drive until they can’t.
But most have no plan for how they’ll get anywhere when they are no longer able to drive, though an also vast majority say in surveys they want to stay in their homes or at least in their own communities as they age.
But officials and volunteers are working on plans to create ways for Maine’s aging population to be able to age in place and still be able to get to medical appointments, grocery stores and coffee shops even when they can no longer safely get behind the wheel of a car, according to speakers Sunday at a forum, “Getting There When You Can’t Drive.”
Those plans include a volunteer driver pilot program in the preliminary stages in Augusta which could serve as a national model and the more than year-old Neighbors Driving Neighbors volunteer driver program, which has already provided hundreds of rides to senior citizens in Belgrade, Fayette, Mount Vernon, Rome and Vienna.
“How many of you want to die in a nursing home?” Jess Maurer, executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging, asked the approximately 70 people at the forum at the University of Maine at Augusta Sunday afternoon. Only one hand was raised.
Maurer said the crowd’s response reflects statistics that show 98 percent of Mainers want to age in their home or at least in their own community. But many don’t have any plan for how they’ll remain where they want to be when they can no longer drive.
“Most Mainers rely on their cars,” she said. “That’s pretty much everyone’s plan — ‘I’m going to drive until I can’t.’ The problem is that creates a crisis when they can’t drive anymore, because we haven’t planned.”
Bob MacDougall, of Augusta, chairman of the Augusta Age Friendly Committee, a group formed last year to seek to make Augusta a move livable community for all ages, said he recently agreed with two other committee members to work on creating a voluntary driver network based on a new model the Independent Transportation Network of America wants to try out in Augusta and Tennessee with a goal of using the pilot as a nationwide model.
The Independent Transportation Network is based in Westbrook and was founded in 1995 by Katherine Freund not long after her three-year-old son was seriously injured after being hit by a car driven by an 84-year-old man.
MacDougall said he and other participants will undergo about five months of online training to test out ways to create such systems which could extend the ability of seniors to age in place by providing rides by volunteers.
“As a pilot city, we’ll get one of the first cracks at giving rides under this program in Maine,” MacDougall said. “It’s going to be volunteer-based. Community-based. We can create and tailor our own systems.”
Irene Goff, coordinator of Neighbors Driving Neighbors, a local initiative in which volunteer drivers are already giving rides to residents in Belgrade, Fayette, Mount Vernon, Rome and Vienna who can’t drive themselves, said the group’s 35 volunteer drivers are the core of the program.
The local initiative’s drivers volunteer their time and receive no compensation for using their own vehicles in the program. She said the reward for drivers is the social interaction with their riders and the positive feeling that comes from helping someone.
“The socialization is almost as important as the rides for both the riders and drivers,” Goff said. “And it’s the best kind of volunteer opportunity, because it is real time. It’s not something like stuffing envelopes. You get to help somebody. See them in the face, because they’re right there. And they’re very grateful.”
Goff said one challenge has been getting Mainers, known for their fierce independence, to call for a ride. She said they’re working to spread the word that the service is not just for medical appointments; it’s also for running errands and shopping.
“Here in Maine we tend to be very independent,” Goff said. “That’s a wonderful thing. And it is something that makes it hard for us to give as many rides as we’d like. They don’t want to bother us.”
Goff said the organization, which runs on an annual budget of about $10,000 in donations, plans to send out a mailer to each resident in the communities it serves to make them aware of the Neighbors Driving Neighbors program.
Neighbors Driving Neighbors began in 2015 and has since provided hundreds of rides in its service area, an area not generally served by public transportation. More information about the program is available by calling 860-0677, emailing [email protected] or online at www.neighborsdrivingneighbors.org.
Maurer said 331,000 Mainers, 25 percent of the population, are more than 60 years old. And there are twice as many Mainers turning 65 every year — 24,000 — than the number of babies being born every year in the state — 12,500. So Maine, which has the oldest median population in the country, is getting older.
She urged attendees to speak to their legislators and local officials to advocate for the creation of some form of public transportation now before there is a crisis of more and more Mainers losing their ability to drive and having no other way to get around.
She said “pending” state legislation, via a bill which has not yet been printed, proposes to increase state Department of Transportation funding to support public transit to meet a goal of providing transportation to at least 20 percent of people who don’t have access to it now.
She said it is estimated that would cost about $14 million. She acknowledged that is a lot of money, especially with the state struggling to fund its existing transportation systems. She said the money would include funding to help build and support volunteer transportation networks.
MacDougall said Kennebec Valley Community Action Program provides a valuable transportation service in Augusta with its five bus runs, but the buses don’t run at night or on weekends.
The forum was sponsored by UMA’s Senior College and College of Arts and Sciences.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647