Car Service Helps Older Adults Stay Independent

Ruth Bowman is picked up at her home by an ITN driver.

Ruth Bowman is picked up at her home by an ITN driver. Joseph Shapiro/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Joseph Shapiro/NPR
Ruth and Dick Bowman both use the ITN car service in place of driving themselves. i i

Ruth and Dick Bowman have both quit driving and use the ITN to take care of their transport needs. Joseph Shapiro/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Joseph Shapiro/NPR
Ruth and Dick Bowman both use the ITN car service in place of driving themselves.

Ruth and Dick Bowman have both quit driving and use the ITN to take care of their transport needs.

Joseph Shapiro/NPR

Two years ago, Dick Bowman's children approached him to say it was time for him to quit driving. The then-89-year-old had caused a couple of fender benders, including scraping another car while driving his Volvo in the parking lot at his tennis club.

But Bowman, a retired professor of English literature who lives in Maine, was still active and needed a way to get to various events and appointments.

He was able to make it work — to get to the local community theater where he once performed, and to AA meetings, including the one he leads at the county jail — because he lives in an area that has an innovative alternative transportation network for older adults.

The service in his community, called the Independent Transportation Network (ITN), was started in 1995 by Katherine Freund. ITN is a car service that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a mission to meet the transportation needs of aging citizens. It's cheaper than a taxi service because ITN is a nonprofit, and some of its drivers are volunteers.

The service uses regular cars; drivers walk up to the older person's front door, help them out of the house and into the car.

"I want it to look like your daughter has come to pick you up," Freund says.

Aging Drivers

Based on miles driven, people 75 and older have higher rates of fatal crashes than any other group except for 16-year-olds, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. One reason is simply that they are more frail than younger people.

But older people are among the most cautious of drivers. Many already cut back on how much they drive. They frequently only get behind the wheel when it's light outside, when the weather is good, and then to go only to nearby and familiar places.

Still, as people age, they lose some of the skills that are important to safe driving. Reaction time slows and confusion grows, according to the highway safety institute. Eyesight dims and bodies become less flexible, making it harder to look over the shoulder to check oncoming traffic, or to operate gas and brake pedals.

Giving Up Driving, Not Independence

Freund says one of the toughest issues facing families with aging parents is how to have the conversation about when it's time to stop driving. She recommends that adult children talk to aging parents even before they have difficulty driving.

"To me, the most important thing about this conversation is to have it in a loving and supportive way," she advises. She recommends adult children tell their parents, " 'I want you to be as independent as you want to be, and I want to help you do that.' "

It's important to talk about what alternatives exist, Freund says. Options include public buses, but often the bus stop is too far away to walk. Freund says talking with aging parents about quitting driving does little good if there's no affordable and reliable alternative to get people door to door.

While some church and volunteer-based groups exist, few communities have alternative transportation options. ITN has 11 locations across the country and a 12th project under way.

When Bowman's wife, Ruth, 92, saw her husband was still able to get around town, even without his car, she started to think about giving up driving, too. One day last winter, she came outside to find her windshield iced up.

"And just suddenly," she says, "I woke up one morning and I thought, 'I don't want to be in an accident. I don't want to kill anybody. I've lost my self-confidence on backing up,' and goodbye car."

She donated her car to ITN. The money, for the value of the car, went into an account that has been paying for her rides since. Ruth Bowman says she figures she came out ahead: She no longer has to maintain her car or carry insurance. And she gets door-to-door rides that she books a day in advance.

Sometimes, she even gets picked up in her old four-door Ford.

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