Rita is legally blind.
Nearly a year ago, she lost her vision and, with that, the ability to drive.
“You can feel very isolated once you can’t get in that car and go any time you want,” Rita says.
Rita has many friends but lives alone in a small, quiet community for adults ages 55 and up. Two of her daughters are nearby, and she’s grateful for their support.
“But you just can’t call on family and neighbors that often and interrupt their lives to get you where you need to go.”
After her diagnosis, Rita had been having some pinched nerve problems in her legs, and it was important to her that she get treatment. But not being able to drive, getting to her doctor’s appointments posed as a significant problem. A neighbor who volunteers for FiftyForward recommended Senior Ride Nashville, an organization that calls on volunteers to provide transportation to older adults who can no longer drive themselves. Rita filled out the application, was interviewed and then accepted into the program.
For the first couple months, she used Senior Ride Nashville twice a week to get to her doctor’s appointments.
“I don’t know what I would have done without them. I really don’t. It’s just been a godsend to be able to call them for help, and I’ve met some wonderful people. To have the opportunity to get to the doctor, the grocery store, get to the pharmacist … shopping even. I recently had a young lady who took me shopping and was able to tell me if what I had on looked decent enough for an old lady,” she says, smiling. “It’s helped me so much in many ways.”
Rita says loneliness can be one of the biggest problems that seniors face.
“Without the ability to be independent and move around the way you’d like to—the way you always have— it can lead to depression in many people,” she says.
And she’s no stranger to isolation. She grew up nearly an only child on a farm in Illinois—her brother is nine years younger. In 1955, she and her husband moved to Tennessee to raise their son and three daughters. But her husband passed away unexpectedly when her youngest daughter was in high school.
Rita was a widow at age 43. While her daughter finished her senior year, Rita enrolled in classes at Motlow State Community College and became a secretary to provide for her family and maintain her family’s independence.
And, thanks to Senior Ride Nashville, she still gets to maintain that independence despite the fact that she can longer get behind the wheel.
“Rita is fully capable; she’s just lacking the ability to drive,” says Elizabeth Madsen, a program manager at Senior Ride Nashville. “She wants to continue her life as she did before her diagnosis. She wants to stay involved, to see her friends and family and to get to those doctor’s appointments. She’s using Senior Ride Nashville to make that happen.”
Reduced mobility often puts seniors at risk for loneliness and prevents them from getting access to nutrition and the health care they need. Adults typically live six to 10 years after they stop driving, Elizabeth says.
“When you stop driving, it increases isolation and leads to depression and you can be less likely to be able to get to a doctor for those needed appointments and treatment, and we’re really working to fight against that to help those folks stay connected and active. We find the biggest desire for seniors is affordable, reliable transportation. You would think with the plethora of ride shares in the community that everyone is using these services. But, if you are relying on that kind of service to get to your appointments on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, it gets expensive really quickly.”
Elizabeth says a quarter of Tennesseans will be designated as seniors by 2020. This portion of our population is rapidly growing, which means the need for more reliable transportation among elders is increasing.
“If there were more drivers, perhaps more riders can be accommodated,” Rita says. “For people to give up some of their spare time to volunteer to help the seniors in our neighborhood is a wonderful asset.”