The ‘Keys’ To Independence
In the midst of a growing transportation crisis, a new option revs up for seniors.
For as far back as she can remember, Louise Applebaum, 83, of Farmington Hills, was always on the go. She got her first job as a runner at the old Colonial Department Store in Detroit back in 1941 when she was just 13 years old. Later in life, she was a busy wife and working mother of three children. Now, she’s a widow and an active senior with six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Applebaum keeps a full social and personal schedule: she’s a member of Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield, she belongs to a book club, enjoys shopping, spending time with loved ones and seeing movies with friends. But, about two years ago, she made the difficult decision to give up her car keys and stop driving because she has macular degeneration, which impairs her vision.
“I wasn’t seeing clearly enough, and I didn’t want to have an accident,” Applebaum says. “It’s frustrating — I was very independent — I could go places by myself without anybody, if I just felt like going to the mall or the Detroit Institute of Arts or even the movies. Now I have to wait for a ride from somebody or ask somebody. That’s the most frustrating thing in the world.”
Applebaum takes advantage of the senior transportation services offered by the city of Farmington Hills. She often rides on a handicapped accessible shuttle that operates Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. (for a suggested donation of $2 each way) and arranges to be picked up at her door for things like grocery shopping and doctors’ appointments. Beyond that, she says she’s blessed with good friends and family members who take her where she needs or wants to go.
“If I had to take the bus, I wouldn’t even know where to catch the bus. I’d probably have to walk two miles to Maple Avenue,” she says. “When I was young and I worked downtown they had buses and streetcars all lined up; you never had to worry about having a car. Now people wait two hours to get a bus because they don’t run on schedule. They’re cutting funding for this, that and the other thing. But, the powers that be don’t understand this is the bread and butter for people who need public transportation. Our system stinks!”
Bus Cuts Coming
With roughly half the city of Detroit’s fleet of buses currently broken down and in the shop, urban riders have been crying out for help. Detroit leaders are in the midst of addressing complaints about overcrowded buses and buses that never come. Now, suburban bus service is also taking a hit. In mid-October, SMART announced it’s cutting service by 22 percent and laying off 123 divers, mechanics, dispatchers and other workers. Some routes will be eliminated; others will have less frequent stops. Service hours will also be reduced as of Dec. 12. SMART’s ridership averages about 40,000 daily, but revenue is down and so is state and federal funding.
“For months, we’ve been negotiating with the unions, and we’ve been unable to reach concession agreements with them,” SMART spokesperson Beth Gibbons told local TV news stations. “Unfortunately, we had to make this decision. We can’t continue to pay money we don’t have.”
Southeast Michigan’s growing transit crisis is a major concern for the local Jewish community. Among Detroit’s aging Jewish population of 65,000, 30 percent of residents are currently 60 or older.
“The numbers of people over 65 in Metro Detroit are going to increase dramatically in the next 10-20 years,” says Robert Tell, president of ITNMetroDetroit (short for Independent Transportation Network). The new nonprofit organization is working on a plan to provide dignified, affordable rides to older adults and the visually impaired for any purpose 24 hours a day.
“Even now, it’s insufficient,” he says. “There just isn’t enough transportation in Oakland County.”
Tell, 74, of Farmington Hills is the driving force behind ITNMetroDetroit. For the last seven years, the retired hospital administrator has been researching and cobbling together a private transportation solution out of fear that he might someday end up feeling isolated.
“What if I want to go to the opera? What if I want to go to a ballgame? What if I want to play golf?” he says. “How am I going to get around if I can’t drive?”
In The Works
ITNMetroDetroit will be an affiliate of ITNAmerica, a national network that started in Maine and now operates in 22 cities across the country. They provide a fleet of private, unmarked vehicles available to give seniors rides around the clock, seven days a week. “Somebody buys a membership for $40 a year,” Tell explains. “They set up a personal transportation account. Money never changes hands. People can donate their cars and get thousands of dollars worth of credits or they can buy credits or earn credits in other ways. Then, whatever rides they use during the month get deducted from the account.”
The group is now incorporated; they’ve put together a board, which consists of several members of the local Jewish community. Tell says ITNMetroDetroit has the support of AARP, the Area Agency on Aging 1-B and several local lawmakers. They’ve applied for grants and are looking for donors to get rolling with the goal of offering rides across Oakland County by spring 2012. The eventual goal is to serve Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
“What we’re trying to do is complementary to everything else that’s going on,” Tell says. “Transportation is a big mosaic, and there are lots of different pieces. We’re going to serve one specific need. It’s going to be for folks who can afford to pay the price. All we need now is real cash from real people to make this happen. If we’re successful, it’s going to be as convenient and useful as having a car in the driveway.”
In the meantime, seniors are using the existing transportation services to get around.
“I have a standing appointment every Friday morning at 9 a.m. [with Jewish Family Service] to go grocery shopping,” said a 79-year-old resident of the Hechtman Jewish Apartments in West Bloomfield who asked not to be identified. The man, who never married, only has a few cousins living in the area. “I also use [JFS] for all of my medical appointments. I’ve found them to be very dependable. But, it’s frustrating. Let’s say tonight I feel like getting a pizza or something. I can’t go pick it up or anything, so I’m kind of at the mercy of them.”
The man says he is physically able to drive, but he simply can’t afford a car. Sometimes he also uses the West Bloomfield Parks and Recreation shuttle, which operates Monday-Friday from 8:15 a.m.-4 p.m. at a cost of $1 each way. There are various other existing options.
“Affordable transportation that gives our vulnerable population access to medical care is one of our highest priorities,” says Alex Goldberg with Jewish Family Service, the Detroit Jewish community’s main transportation service. “We provide more than 28,000 rides annually to more than a thousand clients.”
Goldberg says JFS’s transportation system provides “door-through-door and arm-in-arm” service in a 2,000-square-mile area covering 61 municipalities. There’s a sliding scale fee system based on individual income and the pickup location. JFS has 13 marked vehicles including a 2011 Toyota Sienna minivan it recently won as part of Toyota’s 100 Cars for Good initiative. Public voting determined the winners of the online contest. Jewish Senior Life offers additional options for its roughly 900 residents. They have buses, vans and drivers for shopping, community events, banking, and social and spiritual outings. Jcare Inc. also provides unlicensed personal care services for JSL residents including transportation.
“Ideally, if dollars were unlimited, we’d have at least one handicapped accessible bus per residence (eight residences total) and one full-time driver per bus for daily, weekend and evening enrichments,” says CEO Rochelle Upfal. “We’re fortunate that the Auxiliary for Jewish Senior Life recently purchased a new accessible bus for the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Jewish Community Campus residences.”
Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital has a shuttle system for employees, which seniors can use. There are also private companies like Gary’s Transportation Services LLC. Gary Daien, 59, of Livonia started offering rides full-time in 2009 when he became unemployed. He’s licensed by the state and has commercial insurance, but he says not all private drivers do.
“If someone calls and I can’t take them, I will find another driver,” Daien says. “There’s a loose network of independent drivers. We help each other out.”
Story written by Robin Schwartz|Contributing Writer
For more information:
• ITNMetroDetroit, email Robert Tell at firstname.lastname@example.org
• Farmington Hills Senior Shuttle: (248) 473-1864
• Gary’s Transportation Services, LLC: (248) 921-3874
• Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital (248) 325-1000
• Jewish Family Service Resource Center: (248) 592-2313
• Jewish Senior Life/ JCare Inc. (248) 661-1836
• West Bloomfield Parks and Recreation Shuttle: (248) 706-2411