How can we turn situations – how people cope without a car – into solutions? Let’s hear your suggestions and comments. We tried some lateral thinking and this is what we came up with.
Mobilising family resources
Having family close by does not necessarily fulfil the needs of older people for transport or social contact. They recognise how busy their relatives are – with work, families and their own activities – and do not want to ask for lifts, especially for what might be seen as non-essential travel. But let’s look from the standpoint of the younger generation. Recognition that many people in paid work also have eldercare responsibilities is only just beginning to surface. “Family-friendly” workplace policies are oriented mainly to parents with young children. Better support for working informal carers and more flexible employment conditions might well make it easier for them to help older people with their transport and other support needs.
Lifts were very important to our interviewees. How could we make them more manageable? Firstly make it easier for family members to provide lifts (see above), as this is less likely to bring a sense of obligation and a need for reciprocity. Measures to ease feelings of obligation could also be explored. These might include “green dollar” schemes; guidelines on how much to give; making petrol vouchers available in more outlets.
Then, most respondents hated asking for lifts and found it embarrassing. So, if groups or organisations know older people who are interested in their activities but who lack transport, they could “broker” lifts. Knowing that Mrs A was coming to a club meeting and passing close to Mrs B’s house, the organiser might invite Mrs B and ask Mrs A to pick her up. The same principle could operate within retirement villages, supported housing and multi-unit developments. Perhaps this role could be widened to include brokering of lifts for other activities, especially those “spontaneous” trips older people may miss out on. Networks based on neighbourhoods, churches, recreation and sports clubs, ethnic and other communities may extend their efforts to help people made housebound by lack of transport and missing out on social contact and simple pleasures. Many of our interviewees had given up voluntary work for lack of transport. Initiatives from organisations may help people to re-connect, to the benefit of both.
There is considerable emphasis already on transport to take older people to medical appointments. Interviewees gave examples of where transport is offered at the time of making an appointment, usually on the basis of no charge or a low one. How widely is this available? Other issues include the need for someone to accompany frail older people and assist them in the hospital environment, which can be difficult to negotiate. Spouses of people with dementia being cared for at home face serious problems if the sufferer will not go alone to day-care or appointments. In these cases providing transport is only part of the solution.
Improving public transport
It can’t be assumed that public transport will easily substitute for private transport. In many places it is sparse or non-existent. But there are ways in which public transport could become a more attractive and viable option for older people with adequate stamina and mobility. The main complaint is about access – getting on and off the bus. Many urban services now use “kneeling” buses, with low-level access, but these are not available everywhere. Some older people have been, or are afraid of being, injured on buses, and this needs attention. The actions of bus drivers can also make things either easier or harder for older people. More than one respondent complained that the drivers did not come close enough to the kerb, to avoid a difficult step down and step up. Making sure that all passengers are safely seated before driving off is a simple safety procedure, and bus schedules should allow for this. Signage and timetables do not always recognise the eyesight problems of older people – some people do not use buses because they cannot read the numbers or names of services.
Developing community transport
Community transport is not well developed in New Zealand. Many of the services are for defined purposes, with emphasis on medical appointments. Others require membership of an organisation or a specific community. There are advantages in this, as older people enjoy the company of others like themselves and feel more comfortable with an organisation which they know. However, it can make the services inflexible and exclusive. Examples of community transport for older people in other countries (such as “dial-a-ride”) could be trialled here. Coordination of such services is important – with public transport, with car-pooling and with free services, such as shoppers’ buses.
Improving taxi services
Taxis offer door-to-door transport and many of the advantages of private cars, but the main barrier is cost, even for people who receive subsidies. Concessions for older people could be a selling point for taxi companies, especially outside peak demand periods, perhaps linked to the SuperGold Card scheme or using “ten-trip” tickets. Shared taxis to places frequented by older people may be a way of keeping costs down. Some older people, especially older women, are apprehensive about getting into cars with strangers. People feel more confident with a familiar face, especially if the driver offers special services, such as carrying bags to the door. “Companion” driver services are available in some places and respond to this need.
Help with shopping
The interviews produced examples where shopping centres provide pick-up services for shopping. There are now examples of malls providing mobility scooters for hire. Perhaps “senior citizen-friendly” shopping could be extended as a selling point – with special times, prices and conditions for older people (free delivery of purchases, displays of interest, special rates for haircuts and personal services, financial and health advisors in attendance and so on). Cinemas are often located in malls and they could promote sessions with “classic” films. Special “senior citizen” days could make it easier for older people to combine shopping with entertainment, social contact and professional appointments.
Final thoughts on transport
- Location is important. People who live in large cities have a different set of issues compared to those in smaller centres.
- There are clear gender issues related to transport. These need to be taken into account in public education and information.
- The report has highlighted a distinction between “serious” and “discretionary” travel; do not think the latter is unimportant.
Dr Judith A. Davey
Age Concern New Zealand voluntary policy advisor
Senior Research Associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington