My Turn, Nan Buehrer: For older adults, CARS program is a lifeline

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 17, 2021

By Nan Buehrer

My day begins with a last gulp of coffee before I grab my car keys and drive to work.

No asking to borrow a car, no searching for a ride and not even thinking “what if I can’t get to work today?” My independence, my livelihood and even my health are tied to my ability to arrange transportation to work, medical appointments, grocery shopping and social activities.

Meet Mrs. C, an older adult living independently in Salisbury. Her husband is in hospice care in a skilled care facility. Mrs. C has not seen her husband in three weeks because she does not have transportation or family to take her. To access paratransit services, Mrs C, who uses a walker, must fill out a request and wait to be approved. A disability does not guarantee eligibility for paratransit provided because of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Meet Mr. S, an older adult living independently in rural Rowan County. He no longer drives due to macular degeneration. He has canceled several medical appointments because he can’t find a ride the day his medical professional sees patients. Rowan County’s Individual Transit Assistance (RITA) is limited and provides transportation to each part of the county only one day a week.

For every Mrs. C and Mr. S, there are many more older adults living in Rowan County who rely on alternate transportation for the basic needs of daily living.  The Census Bureau estimates our county’s 65-plus age group is 17.9% of the total population. According to the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management, Rowan County’s 65-plus population by 2039 will increase 36% from 2019. 

Rowan County geographically covers an area of 524 square miles. Consider older adults living in the Cleveland or Rockwell areas in addition to the more populated areas of Salisbury, Spencer, East Spencer and China Grove.  If you are an older adult who no longer drives, how do you get to your appointments? Do you call an elderly friend who really shouldn’t be driving? Do you reluctantly call your daughter and ask her to take off work? Or do you cancel your appointment and hope for the best?

Rufty-Holmes Senior Center, with advice, encouragement and financial support of the Rowan County United Way, responded to this dire need for transportation. The pilot program, Connecting Across Rowan for Seniors (CARS) was developed. CARS offers vital transportation for older adults when other options are not available.

CARS uses volunteer drivers to assist an older adult with transport to needed appointments and errands. Riders pay based on the mileage of each trip. A grant from the United Way of Rowan County assists in paying ride costs for those with financial need.

As more older adults need rides, we need more volunteer drivers. Would you consider driving for CARS? Drivers volunteer a few hours monthly to a few hours weekly. Volunteers receive in-class driver safety training, background checks and mileage reimbursement. It’s an opportunity to pay it forward. One day, each of us will no longer drive and need a vital ride that gives us independence.

Remember Mrs C?  She visited her husband thanks to the CARS program and driver Cindy. Mrs C. exclaimed on her way home, “This was the best day!” She is now getting weekly rides. Imagine if all that separated you and your loved one at the end of life was not miles but lack of a simple ride.

And Mr. S no longer misses vital medical appointments thanks to the CARS program and driver Neil. During his ride, Mr. S shared his need for a handrail by his steps since he doesn’t see well. Rufty-Holmes Senior Center will coordinate this minor home repair. Mr. S now feels more confident living independently, knowing a ride is available when he needs one.

Thanks to Rufty-Holmes Senior Center and United Way’s commitment to increased access for alternative and affordable modes of transportation, older adults can live independent, healthy lives longer in their own homes. Lack of transportation should not be the main factor forcing older adults into alternate housing before they are ready. 

Give to the United Way; it truly is life affirming! When our community comes together and inspires one another to give their time, money and talents to assist with our community needs, then those resources ultimately flow to our neighbors in need and create a thriving community for everyone.

Call CARS at 704-216-7717 to learn how you can volunteer as a CARS driver.

Nan Buehrer is executive director of the Rufty-Holmes Senior Center.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misstated the last name of the author. We apologize for the error.