In Florida, Aging Population Struggles to Get Around

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ITN driver John McCallister helps a client (photo courtesty of the Independent Transportation Network, Orlando)

(Orlando, FL -- WMFE) With more than three million residents over the age of 65, Florida's population has the highest proportion of senior citizens of any state in the US. One challenge facing many of Florida's seniors is how to get out and about once they can no longer drive.

In Orlando, some 300 seniors subscribe to the Independent Transportation Network private non-profit car service. Bea Chernok uses ITN a couple of times a week, for everything from doctors visits to social excursions.

"Last week, on a Sunday, they took me down to the Carr Auditorium, I saw an opera, they picked me up, and I wasn’t afraid," she says.

Chernok says ordinarily she wouldn't go out at night, but she feels safe with the ITN drivers, like John McCallister.

McCallister started volunteering after he retired about three years ago.

"Since then I’ve driven about 30 thousand miles," he says. "After three and a half years of picking up the same people every week, boy, you become family.”

Hospitals are a major destination for ITN drivers according to executive director Kimber Threet.

"Obviously when you’re offering this type of service and our target market is seniors, they typically have a need for medical services," Threet says.

"We’ve included all of the medical buildings especially down on Orange Avenue here in Orlando. That’s where all of your main hotspots are.”

Starting in 2014, seniors will have more transportation options in the medical corridor. They’ll be able to take advantage of the SunRail commuter train stop at Florida Hospital on North Orange. Taxis are also part of the transportation mix for seniors, but Threet says the shorter trips that many ITN clients take aren't always financially attractive to cab drivers.

ITN's average trip length is three and a half miles, which costs the rider about nine dollars. There’s also a 60 dollar annual membership fee.

That’s too expensive for some, but public mass transit does provide an alternative. Central Florida’s Lynx bus service operates a fleet of minivans and cars for its Access Lynx door to door service. More than 11 thousand people- not just seniors- use it, but director Bill Hearndon admits Access Lynx isn’t perfect.

“We’re out there traveling in the same congestion as everyone else is. If there’s an accident on I-4, our day’s shot," he says.

"If it rains, traffic tie ups happen through out the service area and our on-time performance is down the drain."

Still, Hearndon says for some customers, Access Lynx provides the only social interaction they get.

"We have customers who if it weren’t for our service, would be stuck at home, would be shut in."

Hearndon says there isn’t enough money to meet demand for the door to door service. Access Lynx already turns down 2,000 applicants each year.

"Lynx doesn’t have a dedicated funding source. So every year we literally have to go begging for funding,” he says.

That leaves churches, synagogues, mosques and other community organizations working to help fill a growing transportation need. Pegge Stickel organizes a car service with close to a hundred volunteer drivers at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Winter Park.

Stickel's volunteer model doesn’t require regular commitment from drivers. She says it’s so successful 13 other faith communities in Orlando have adopted it. But she worries people can rely too much on the work of volunteers.

“When the city can’t, when the county can’t, when the federal government can’t, when the private, non-profits can’t, they turn to the faith communities, and then unfortunately we become overwhelmed with the burden of responsibility,” says Stickel.

Voluntary organizations are under pressure, and public mass transit and private non-profit car services also face a funding squeeze. However, advocates for the elderly agree more time and money needs to be invested to help seniors stay mobile.