You've always driven everywhere, but suddenly you can't. Then what?
In Vermont, one in five people is 65 or older.
Being a rural state, it’s not surprising that people here drive longer than they do in other states by necessity. But there comes a point when all of us who do drive won’t be able to for one reason or another.
Marion Austin has had to face that. She’s 90, lives by herself in Rutland and loves to drive. Four years ago, she bought herself a sporty new red Subaru. But not long after, she had an accident.
“I fell and broke both my wrists, in one split second,” she said. She couldn’t get behind the wheel for months. “So here was this brand-new car sitting in my garage unable to be driven; and then asking for help for doctor's appointments, for grocery shopping.”
Marcia Rose is 89 and also lives alone, not far from Marion. Marcia took a bad fall last year and couldn’t drive for weeks. “Not being able to drive is losing one of your prime things of independence," Rose said. "And it really sets you back. It just does.”
Research confirms this. According to a 2016 study by Columbia University, when people stop driving, their risk of depression doubles, and their physical functioning and cognitive abilities decline. They don’t go to as many doctor’s appointments or get out with friends.
Former drivers were also nearly five times as likely as current drivers to be admitted to a nursing home, assisted living community, or retirement home.
And okay, you might be thinking, older Vermonters should be staying home right now because of the pandemic. And that’s true. But just knowing you CAN get out of your house if you want to or need to is big.
Marion Austin and Marcia Rose say they were lucky. When they couldn’t drive, friends helped them get around.
But both admit it was humbling.
“Knowing that you need to rely on other people to either do for you or get you where you need to go. And that means asking,” Rose said. "And that is the hardest thing of all, to ask.”
I didn’t think much about this until I was the one being asked for help and my mom was doing the asking.
My mom has macular degeneration, an eye disease which has blurred her central vision.
It’s one of the leading causes of vision loss among older Americans, and it’s made everything harder for her. Driving has become impossible.
So last summer, she sold her car and at 87, moved from Wisconsin to an apartment in Rutland to be closer to me.
I figured I’d be a big part of helping her get around. And I take her to the doctors, to the store and pretty much wherever she needs to go.
But we both thought there would be other options, safe and affordable ways she can get out on her own, even during a pandemic.
Trying to find those options is what led to this reporting, and why I’m telling you about my mom in the first place. Because it’s been harder and more confusing than either of us thought, and a bigger issue than I had imagined.
“Not being able to drive is losing one of your prime things of independence. And it really sets you back. It just does.”
First, my mom hit the phones, calling local cab companies we found online. Two didn't answer, so my mom left a couple messages.
When she did get through, we learned that cabs are an option in Rutland, but if you’re on a fixed income, paying $12 to $20 per outing adds up. We also learned that you have to call ahead, at least a day or two. So, you can’t be spontaneous.
Rideshare companies like Uber or Lyft may work in some parts of the state, but in Rutland, when I was finally able to ping a driver, it was super pricey.
Public buses are available in Rutland. But my mom uses a cane, and the closest stop is more than two blocks away. Plus, Rutland’s sidewalks are terrible. So, no buses.
The good news is, there are programs that provide free door-to-door transportation for people 60 and over in every part of the state. A call to the Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging, which serves Rutland and Bennington counties, explained the various options for my mom.
Statewide, Medicaid pays for medical trips for low income Vermonters, while federal grants from a program for the elderly and disabled pay for everyone else.
The bad news is, while we were excited to learn about these services, funding for them doesn’t meet demand, and it's hard to know which program you qualify for and whom to call to schedule a ride. There's also no guarantee you’ll get a ride when you want or need one. Medical trips, for example, trump a trip to the store every time.
But Dan Currier, a public transit coordinator for VTrans, said these programs help a lot of older Vermonters: "What I can tell you is that we provided over 700,000 trips [a year] before COVID, through the Elders and Persons with Disabilities program."
Because of the pandemic, Currier said the number of rides provided by these door to door services dropped significantly to around 400,000 this past year. But traffic is picking back up.
"... we provided over 700,000 trips a year before COVID, through the Elders and Persons with Disabilities program."
Jordan Posner, of Green Mountain Transit, says they're able to provide up to 12 free, round-trips a month for people 60 and over in the central Vermont counties they serve.
Jim Moulton of Tri-Valley Transit, which operates in Addison, Orange and North Windsor counties, says their budget allows them to provide up to eight round-trips.
Different parts of the state provide these door-to-door services in different ways, which can be confusing, and the programs don’t all talk to each other or use the same software.
Dan Currier says VTrans is now studying this more closely, so rides can be streamlined and better coordinated statewide.
"We are trying to ask the question of all our providers: 'How many trips did you deny, or how many trips were you not able to complete, because you didn't have a volunteer or because your drivers who drive the bus couldn't get out to a community?'" Currier said.
Because of all this, national transportation experts point to Vermont as a leader among rural states when it comes to providing seniors with help getting around.
Ironically, most of that help comes from other older Vermonters, who volunteer to drive them.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Nina Keck: