Transportation a challenge for North Jersey seniors

Transportation a challenge for North Jersey seniors

Jewish groups see need for communities to step up to plate

Seniors get off the bus at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh.
Seniors get off the bus at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh.

Do seniors in Bergen County have sufficient access to inexpensive, reliable, and flexible modes of transportation?

According to people whose agencies and nonprofits serve this population, the answer is a resounding no. And given those organizations’ commitment to the concept of aging in place with dignity, this lack of transportation creates a serious problem.

Susan Greenbaum, the executive director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, said that the issue of transportation “is a huge issue nationally, but in a place like Bergen County, it becomes even more so because public transportation is virtually non-existent. We have something like 70 towns. Some have transportation, some don’t. Some go into other towns, some don’t.”

The topic, she said, comes up in any group of service providers when the talk turns to seniors. In fact, she added, she is part of two coalitions, in Englewood and in Teaneck, working on a project called Age Friendly Communities, funded by the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation.

Julia A. Stoumbos, the foundation’s program officer, said that the initiative is a collaborative effort between the Taub Foundation and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest. Ms. Stoumbos, together with Renie Carniol, the executive director of the Grotta Fund for Senior Care, is working with eight communities in northern New Jersey “to support them in creating actionable plans that will make their communities more age-friendly.”

While these communities have yet to define their priorities, “The priorities that have emerged from other age-friendly communities around the country typically fall within the following domains: transportation, housing, social participation, outdoor spaces and built environment, and community support/health services,” Ms. Stoumbos said.

Patty Stoll, JFS Bergen’s director of senior services, said that all of the agency’s clients struggle with the issue of transportation, and not just for lack of resources.

“They’re not reliable,” she said. “We may refer them to Access Link or Bergen County Transit or Medicaid, but [the vehicles] are late, or they don’t show up, or they leave our clients waiting in a doctor’s office.”

Ms. Stoll, who said that most of JFS’s senior services clients are homebound, called the lack of transportation a “major concern — an obstacle in getting seniors to daycare or activity centers. They would like to go, but they can’t get there.”

Leah Kaufman, the executive director of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey, said that her agency has been experiencing problems with transportation “for quite some time. Transport, like housing, really needs to be improved, especially since the older adult population is increasing. It’s becoming more urgent.”

She pointed out that since many of their clients are unable to arrange reliable transportation, “we end up doing home visits.” And that, she said, is not good.

“Look at the impact. If people are stuck in a house, they’re isolated and cut off from the community. We try to encourage them to come here. It’s better for them to get out than to have the services come to them.”

She noted that even when a county provides some busing, those buses generally will not cross county lines. So if a client, say, has a physician in another county, that presents a problem. And while some clients are starting to use reduced price car services such as ITN (see below), others cannot afford it.

“The big issue is to figure out a transportation system to accommodate everyone,” she said. “To look at what’s in place and figure out how to get older adults from a to b.” While her agency tries to find volunteer drivers, “they’re few and far between. It’s so sad having to turn away people.”

Karen Tucker, executive director of the Adler Aphasia Center, said that the issue of transportation is a major concern for both the center’s Maywood office and its satellite facility in West Orange.

Ronne Bassman-Agins, right, was ITNs first driver and a member of the steering committee. Carol Wild also is on the committee. Both women live in Fort Lee.
Ronne Bassman-Agins, right, was ITNs first driver and a member of the steering committee. Carol Wild also is on the committee. Both women live in Fort Lee.

Most of its 75 members neither drive themselves nor are driven by family members. “Many rely on outside help,” Ms. Tucker said. This may include the Bergen County Paratransit System, funded by New Jersey Transit, Access Link, or, in some cases, Logisticare for people on Medicaid.

According to New Jersey Transit’s website, “Although there are some paratransit services open to the general public, others have eligibility requirements and may be restricted to senior citizens, people with disabilities, or social services clients.”

Until recently, Ms. Tucker said, eight of her members came to the center on a bus provided by the Jewish Home in Rockleigh with a grant from the county. That grant now has been discontinued. While most of the eight have been able to make other arrangements, it remains to be seen whether all of them will find a viable means of transport.

“One member contracted a private person, but some don’t have the resources,” she said. It’s a patchwork.”

Carol Silver Elliott, president and CEO of Jewish Home Family, said that the grant was discontinued because the institution was not able to meet the county’s criteria.

“There are so many restrictions on everything,” she said, adding that transportation is “horribly expensive. We provide transportation to everyone who comes to the Gallen Medical Adult Day Center.” With that, she noted, comes the costs of running a fleet of buses, making necessary repairs, and finding appropriate and safe drivers.

“I think the issue will grow when you look at a picture of the aging population, with people living in suburbs,” Ms. Elliott said. “One problem with transportation to the Gallen Center is the fact that it is not close to a highway, and following regulations, passengers may not be on a bus longer than one hour.”

“That limits our ability even to pick people up,” she continued. “There are many complexities. If we could solve that, we could solve a lot of aging issues. Think about it. People want to age in place, but what happens if you can’t drive anymore? The world gets smaller.”

Ms. Elliott said that the issue must be discussed “community-wide, in a big picture way.” After all, people need transportation for daily living, not just for specific services.

According to Ms. Tucker, existing transportation options are not sufficient. For example, to be eligible for Access Link, which New Jersey Transit provides for people who qualify as disabled, travelers must live within three quarters of a mile of a public bus route. And because the cars must be given a 20-minute window on each side for pick up and drop off, “it’s annoying, difficult, and challenging. A bus came and our member wasn’t outside. So it just left.”

Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, in 2015 John Boswick, Mary Lyons Kim, and Kate Surgent, all of Wyckoff, started up a transportation group affiliated with ITN America. With the tagline “Helping Seniors Stay Mobile,” the mission of the group, its website says, is to “support sustainable, community-based transportation services for seniors throughout the world by building a senior transportation network through research, policy analysis and education, and by promoting lifelong safety and mobility.”

ITN (formerly known as the Independent Transportation Network) uses volunteer drivers, which keeps costs down. The nearly 30 affiliates serve people over 60, as well as visually impaired people who are at least 18. Passengers have to be self-ambulatory, although Ms. Kim said that ITN drivers stand ready to assist them when necessary.

“We started officially in June 2015, although we had the idea in 2012,” Ms. Kim said. “It took that long to get the startup funding and become operational. We reached out to every family, private, and corporate foundation, to 25 or more Rotary’s and Lion’s clubs, hoping it would resonate with someone.” Their canvassing brought results: The group ultimately obtained its seed money from the Taub Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Finally up and running, “we got way too busy too fast,” Ms. Kim said. “It was not sustainable. There were more calls than we could keep up with.” Lacking volunteer drivers, the three organizers — “a happy close trio,” Ms. Kim said — each were driving eight to ten hours a day. Finally, when the service got a driver in Fort Lee — and then, one by one, more drivers — the project really took off.

Dubbed “Uber for Seniors,” the company allows drivers — all of whom have been carefully vetted with background checks in all 50 states, updated monthly — to select the jobs they want to accept.

“Our service is arm to arm, door to door,” Ms. Kim said, and member feedback has been extremely positive. All passengers must pay a $90 membership fee. There is a $2.50 pick-up charge, then a fee of $1.50 per mile. Tipping is not allowed. According to Ms. Kim, ITN charges less than half the price of a taxi service.

Carol Silver Elliott, left, Leah Kaufman, Lisa Harris Glass, and Susan Greenbaum
Carol Silver Elliott, left, Leah Kaufman, Lisa Harris Glass, and Susan Greenbaum

“It’s kind of like EZPass,” she said. “Most people start with $50 in their account.”

Word of mouth is helping to build the volunteer base, but until it gets more drivers, the local ITN affiliate will have to put a freeze on certain parts of the county. “Our push is in getting volunteers,” she said. “Then we can open up.”

She is, she said, “1000 percent gratified” by the results of the venture. “We see the difference it makes in a person’s life.” She recalled driving a woman to her appointment for eye surgery. “I knew she was nervous and that I could distract her in the car. I was like a family member. I made sure she called her son.”

Reeling off the other available transportation resources, cited above, Ms. Kim repeated that “you have to qualify, live on certain routes. It’s not arm to arm, though it’s better than not having anything. You get nothing if you’re a senior in Wyckoff. In Mahwah, seniors can use a bus that runs Tuesdays and Thursdays, but there’s no flexibility.”

ITN, she said, is available “technically 24/7,” driving people in the evenings and on weekends. “One lady goes to a hootenanny in Fair Lawn on Saturday nights, and we take her. We help them engage in life. This is the community that they built, and they should continue to enjoy it and take an active part in it.”

She noted that the federation and the Taub Foundation are still involved, “and they are amazing partners in every way possible. They understand the need. I think the municipalities should step up and do more. I wish there was more understanding of the invisible people,” she said, citing the irony of featuring athletes on cereal boxes while seniors on dialysis battling cancer receive less recognition for their courage. “We need more compassion. When that happens, other things will fall into place.”

Lisa Harris Glass, the federation’s managing director for community planning and impact, brought the idea of funding ITN to the federation. “Federation, in our role as a community planner, convener, and facilitator, goes out to visit partner agencies,” she said. “We asked them what trend they were noticing, what was keeping them up at night. We were hearing the overwhelming story of a need for senior transportation beyond what’s available in our catchment area.

“We set about doing research into the ways other communities are attempting to solve this, and we came across ITN America.”

Invited to attend a parlor meeting at which Ms. Boswick and Ms. Kim were pitching the idea to the community, looking for funding, she and Julia Stoumbos “went off into a corner” and decided this would be a worthy project,” Ms. Glass said.

“I said something like, ‘Look, it won’t get started if someone doesn’t be a Nachshon and step into the water.” (Nachshon ben Aminadav, according to midrash, was the Israelite who first walked into the Red Sea as the people fled the oncoming Egyptians.)

“I believed the federation leadership would be really interested in investing in this, and even more so if they knew for every dollar we gave, the Taub Foundation might be matching that dollar,” Ms. Glass continued. After going back to their respective leaders (and, Ms. Glass said, “to committees and commissions and the board”), the two women got buy-in for the project and were able to proceed. “It took a little longer than anticipated to get it up and running, but we never stopped believing in them,” Ms. Glass said. “It made sense.”

She said that one fact of living in New Jersey is “sprawl. Many people do not live close to highways.” While ITN may not be the answer for everyone, “we can make a dent” in the problem. “ITN has such a high demand; the biggest thing they need is volunteers to drive. Get them more, and the sky’s the limit.”

Ms. Stoumbos said the Taub Foundation, with its interest in helping seniors age in place, believed that a pilot program for transportation fell well within its purview.

“People are very challenged by the transportation problem, finding resources that are reliable and that get them when they need to go,” she said. When the need is not medical, or they cannot give advance notice, they may be out of luck.

Ms. Stoumbos is exciting about watching ITN grow. “They’ve blasted up in terms of members, but in terms of volunteers, it’s more of a challenge,” she said. “They’re exploring every way.” She hopes that more people will volunteer when they realize that it won’t increase their insurance costs and that they will receive training “and plenty of support.

“We’re thrilled to be partnering with federation on this, because it’s great to get a co-founder who gets it.”

Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, noted in an email that the association has made it “a key priority to enhance transportation options for seniors, recognizing the fact that if you can’t get to it, it does not exist.” He pointed out that these challenges, “in even a service-rich environment, are very real in our suburban state.”

The association has undertaken various measures to address this situation. For example, working with partner organizations and the state legislature, it has overseen the passage of resolutions in support of drivers who transport seniors and others in need. In addition, the group has been working with NJ Transit “to imagine creative options for seniors through the existing infrastructure. One approach has been to identify bus route deviations during off-peak hours to access senior living facilities and enhance their mobility and to urge local jurisdictions to grant approvals for strategic bus stops.”

Mr. Toporek said that last year, the association advocated for a $6.5 million supplemental funding measure to enhance transportation for senior and disabled residents. It was necessary because the Casino Revenue Fund, a traditional source of such revenue, has been down dramatically. Together with other groups, the state association urged the Governor to support A4607, “but ultimately, the measure was vetoed,” he said.

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