Blanche Utley decided to stop driving in 2004, when she began to lose her sight to macular degeneration.
A retired state employee, she lives alone in northwest Raleigh and counts herself lucky to remain at home when many people her age have moved to long-term care. She gives credit largely to the volunteers who give her rides to medical appointments and other destinations.
“I gave up driving before my license actually expired,” said Utley, 77. “I knew when the lines in the road got crooked I didn’t need to be driving.”
The Center for Volunteer Caregiving, a Cary-based nonprofit, helps coordinate rides for older people such as Utley throughout Wake County. Growing demand for such services meant that the miles provided by the center leapt from 18,000 last year to 36,000 this year.
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The increase, advocates for older people say, represents a need for transportation that will continue to grow as aging baby boomers swell the 65-plus population of Wake County to an estimated 200,000 by 2030. Public resources for such services are in decline, with rides provided by Resources for Seniors down 40 percent since 2008, largely because of cuts in state funding.
“There are a lot of people that are stuck at home,” said Don Willis, transportation manager for Wake County Human Services. “There are people out there driving who shouldn’t be driving.”
There’s also an increased need for volunteers to drive those who rely on the agency to get out of the house.
“The requests are growing,” said Julie Keely, transportation coordinator for the Center for Volunteer Caregiving. “We’re looking for a commitment of four to eight hours a month.”
Willis helps parcel out money that comes from federal, state and county sources to agencies such as Resources for Seniors, which has helped fund the Center for Volunteer Caregiving and often refers older people there.
“It’s tough times all the way around,” Willis said of the overwhelmed system.
A top-priority need
The Center for Volunteer Caregiving is marking two decades of helping older people with respite care and transportation. Transportation often emerges as the most important priority in studies of the needs of older people, and the center responds by supplying screened, trained volunteers who provide residents with escorted, door-to-door rides.
As Utley described the volunteers that drive her to doctor’s appointments and grocery shopping, she stopped to reconsider.
“You don’t actually say they’re ‘volunteers,’ ” Utley said. “They’re actually your friends.”
With long-time director Lynn Templeton at the helm, the group operates on a budget of about $300,000 annually, less than an executive director’s salary at some agencies. Its effectiveness rests on recruiting people such as Carol Derrenbacher, 70, the Wake Forest resident who drives Utley and others under the auspices of the center.
“We are told repeatedly by our care receivers how much they appreciate the service we provide,” Derrenbacher said. “I think that’s what keeps us all going. We’re needed and appreciated, so it’s very fulfilling.”
The process is a simple one. After Utley schedules a doctor’s appointment, she calls a volunteer coordinator with information about the time and location. Soon, Utley hears from her driver, and they confirm the exact time.
On the day of the appointment, Utley prepares her pocketbook five minutes before it’s time to leave, and waits for the doorbell to ring. It’s not just a cab service – the driver helps her into the car if needed and often waits with her during the appointment.
“Words can’t describe what they have done for me mentally, as well as with my health,” she said.
Needed: more drivers
Utley makes a compelling case for the importance – and cost-effectiveness – of making sure that older people aren’t stuck alone at home, where their physical and emotional health can be at risk.
“The senior citizens of today are the ones that made Wake County go for the last 40 years, and we are still paying taxes,” she said. “If there was some way that programs could be set up, or existing programs were given more funding, down the road you may have actually saved thousands of dollars.”
The Center for Volunteer Caregiving receives funding from a variety of private and public sources. To boost recruitment, Jared Husketh, the center’s special projects coordinator, has set up online training to make it easier for people to go through the required process before becoming volunteers.
At Wake County, Willis said he’s still waiting to see what sort of funding will be set aside for elderly people and those with disabilities under the state’s $3.9 billion state and federal transportation budget. Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposal for the budget year that started July 1 recommends a $2 million cut in public transportation.
State funding to Wake for transporting seniors took a 25 percent cut two years ago and a smaller one last year. People who aren’t hooked up with volunteers can get help – as long as there’s funding – from the Elderly and Disabled Individuals Transportation Program.
“With EDTAP, we run vans, we buy gas cards, and when we can, we put people on the city bus,” Willis said.