For older people who can’t drive, local programs offer transportation

  • Puleo arrives to pick up Wheeler who has a prosthetic leg and can no longer drive. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Elaine Puleo arrives at the Shutesbury home of David Wheeler to take him to an appointment on Monday morning, Feb. 19, 2018. The Med Ride Program is a free transportation program for seniors 55 and over. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Elaine Puleo, a volunteer with the Med Ride program in Shutesbury, picks up David Wheeler at his home to take him to a medical appointment. The service offers free transportation for seniors 55 and over. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Wheeler uses the ride service at least once every two week. He says the drivers, who use their own cars, are reliable, even in winter. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Elaine Puleo gets ready to drive David Wheeler to an appointment on Monday morning, Feb. 19, 2018. The Med Ride Program is a free transportation program for seniors 55 and over. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Elaine Puleo arrives at the Shutesbury home of David Wheeler to take him to an appointment on Monday morning, Feb. 19, 2018. The Med Ride Program is a free transportation program for seniors 55 and over. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Monday, March 12, 2018

One day as he was driving through Amherst, David Wheeler’s prosthetic leg came loose. It bumped the gas pedal, causing his car to catapult into a nearby concrete barrier. That moment is still fuzzy in his memory, he says. No one was injured, but he never drove again, leaving him to count on others to get him to his ongoing doctor appointments.

“If I hadn’t relied on friends or on my wife to take off from work, I don’t know what I would have done,” he says.

Wheeler, 74, lost part of his leg five years ago to a diabetic infection that started on his toe and ended up deep in his bones. Doctors had no choice but to amputate, he says.

Transportation immediately became a struggle. He was in a wheelchair for two weeks before getting fitted with a prosthesis and learning to walk with a cane. All the while he worried about getting to his doctor appointments. 

Wheeler is one of the many older people who can no longer drive, but require transportation for medical care. To address that need, a number of small grassroots efforts have sprouted up throughout the Pioneer Valley.

Several of the half a dozen programs the Gazette found are run mostly by volunteers, usually out of senior centers and by local councils on aging. Some have partnerships with public transit.

Many operate on shoestring budgets with little money for advertising. That means people are left without rides simply because they don’t know help exists, says Wheeler, who is also a volunteer at the Shutesbury Council on Aging, one of the organizations to offer free medical transportation.

“A lot of people live alone or are isolated or they don’t have anyone to take them places,” he says.

Documenting the need 

A survey of 15 rural western Massachusetts towns, conducted by the Hilltown Development Corporation in 2016, found that many residents over the age of 60 are heavily dependent on family or friends for rides, with 70 percent of respondents reporting that they sometimes or always rely on others for transportation. Overall, the study showed that scarce transportation options have limited the mobility of older residents, causing 8 percent of survey respondents to miss medical appointments in the past year.

“We are a very rural community and we also have an aging demographic and that confluence was creating a struggle for seniors who could no longer drive or who were no longer comfortable driving,” says Kate Bavelock, Hilltown CDC community development specialist. “And there was a hesitancy to ask for help.”

Based on the study’s findings, Hilltown Development Corporation started a new program last year with the Franklin Regional Transit Authority called Hilltown Easy Ride. The transit authority pays most of the program’s expenses and supplies a 12-passenger van, which is far more personal than public transportation, Bavelock says.

“It really is beyond transportation. We notice if someone cancels three rides, three times in a row. We let someone know, and it becomes a well-being check,” she says. “We feel like we are part of someone’s healthcare. We are there to notice and help them when they need it.”

‘It’s a godsend’

According to Wheeler, people are often surprised and relieved to learn about the free transportation service, Med Ride, that the Shutesbury Council on Aging offers. The program, funded by a grant from the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, now has six drivers who work on an as-needed basis and use their own cars. All of the drivers undergo a background check.

Most of the programs like this one are based in towns, serving just their own communities, like the Northampton Senior Center’s Dial-A-Ride that operates in partnership with Pioneer Valley Transit Authority to offer rides to residents on weekdays. It was added last year as a more accessible alternative to complement the volunteer medical transportation program already in place there. The Easthampton Council on Aging provides rides for picking up prescriptions and getting to doctor appointments.

Many of these programs like the ones in Easthampton and Northampton, also have rides available to grocery stores or to do other errands.

“It’s a godsend,” Wheeler says of the Shutesbury ride service. Even in the winter months, it is always reliable, he adds. “They show up on time more often than I do.”

A critical need

Jennifer Carbery, who is the transportation coordinator for the Northampton’s Dial-A-Ride program, says people use the center’s van to get crucial care, such as dialysis or radiation therapy to treat cancer. “If they can’t receive that care consistently, they really are putting their health at risk,” she says. 

She’s also found that clients are often reluctant to ask family members for rides and programs like these can take some of the pressure off. 

“The biggest thing I hear from my seniors is that they don’t want to burden family members. Family members are working, they have their own lives. It’s hard to always be asking for a ride somewhere, so (the van) gives them a that little bit of independence,” she says.  

Dial-A-Ride has been running for a year and it serves as many as 70 passengers every week. “We’ve grown faster, I think, than we thought we were going to,” Carbery says. With time, the senior center staff hope that the Dial-A-Ride program can expand to help those in neighboring towns.

Social, too

Wheeler uses the Med Ride service in Shutesbury at least once every two weeks. Volunteers come to his home in their own cars to pick him up for regular visits to his endocrinologist in Northampton and they are able to drive him to other medical appointments anywhere throughout Hampshire, Franklin or Hampden counties.

“I really don’t know why more people aren’t using it,” he says.

Med Ride can provide just 10 rides per month, says David Ban, the co-director of the Med Ride program. To get one of them, a person 55 or older can simply call the program’s number with a request about two weeks in advance.

Since the Med Ride drivers use their own vehicles, walkers or wheelchairs cannot be accommodated. A person in a wheelchair could seek transportation through LifePath, an organization based in Greenfield dedicated to helping people age with dignity, says Lynne Feldman, director of community service at LifePath.

For some, the rides to appointments double as a social outings. Wheeler finds that Med Ride gives him a way to get to know his neighbors and many of the drivers have become his friends. “It’s broadened my social circle,” he says.

But more importantly, he adds, these programs help people remain living in their homes longer and avoid being moved to assisted living facilities.

Of the Shutesbury Council on Aging he says: “We are doing everything we can do for people to be able to live in place and to live in the home that they choose.”