Expect to see more seniors cruising across town riding shotgun.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia recently awarded the Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JFCS) a $125,000 transportation grant. The grant will help seniors get around easier, whether they have to go to the grocery store, medical appointments or other programs.
Many seniors face similar problems as they age: They must give up their driver’s license due to physical limitations or ailments, losing their independence and depending on the services of family members, volunteers or public transportation.
Cassandra West, manager of program eligibility and regulatory compliance of Customized Community Transportation (CCT Connect), said Paratransit, a program of SEPTA, helps fill that void.
All SEPTA buses are compliant under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but Paratransit provides a shared rider program for seniors ages 65 and up within Philadelphia County.
“We provide door-to-door transportation within Philadelphia, and we’ll take them up to 3 miles outside of Philadelphia,” West said.
She said about 15,000 seniors use the program, which accepts reservations for rides up to three days in advance.
But West noted that the service is not a direct route.
“We do between 7,000 and 8,000 trips a day, which is pretty busy. A lot of the feedback we get comes in educating people and how the service works. We constantly have to remind people that we’re more comparable to a bus than a cab,” she said.
If it only takes 20 minutes to drive by car from point A to point B, for example, West said it’s 45 minutes by bus.
“We tell people they should plan or anticipate their trip to be up to 50 percent longer than you would on a bus,” she said. “As a ridesharing service, other people can pick up and drop off along the way,” which increases the travel time.
Additionally, West said to plan accordingly as Paratransit provides trips “within an hour of your request time,” meaning if you’re trying to leave at 8 a.m., expect to be picked up anywhere between 7 and 9 a.m.
“It’s very similar to the regular bus,” she said, meaning riders must make the decision to reserve earlier rides to get somewhere on time or a later ride and risk being late to an appointment. “Most of us who use public transportation, those are the decisions that you have to make. Paratransit runs much the same way.
“The customer is expected to make the decision that best suits their needs,” she added.
However, Brian Gralnick, director of the Center for Social Responsibility of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said through conversations with the community, social workers and staff, they learned transportation to medical appointments is the biggest need in the community for older adults and people with disabilities.
He noted that need was not being filled by Paratransit.
“We made this grant because Paratransit is notoriously known for inadequate service,” he said. “Some members of our communal service call it Para-strand-sit.”
He said they are now looking at how state transportation can make Paratransit more effective, as this is the largest transportation investment Jewish Federation has made in years.
Paula Goldstein, president and CEO of JFCS, requested the grant “because we know that the No. 1 issue facing older adults is transportation, or lack of it. We felt strongly that we wanted to do a better job of being able to provide transportation and also have somebody on board who really understands every aspect and resource of transportation in the city of Philadelphia.”
She said some seniors — many of the clients that JFCS serve live on their own — use other methods like Uber or cabs or rely on volunteers.
“The reality is that the transportation available for older adults is very varied,” she noted. “Older adults never have sufficient transportation. So our goal with the grant was to grow the ways that we can provide transportation.”
People from the Jewish Relief Agency (JRA) will volunteer their time as drivers for the program, which begins March 13.
“What JFCS does well is care management for clients,” said Melanie Zhitnitsky, director of new initiatives for JRA, “and JRA really capitalizes on the power of volunteerism. So we are taking over the volunteer-ride aspect of things.”
JRA will be one of several ride providers. To join the volunteer hub, Zhitnitsky said to contact JRA in mid-March. To be a participant, contact JFCS.
“It is the most efficient way of providing rides, in our opinion, that engages the community to help community,” she said.
In addition to the grant-given rides, Goldstein said some cab fares and Uber rides will be subsidized.
“The overall issue also is that when you’re working with older adults, it’s a moment in time where many are giving up driving. It’s such a big loss of independence,” she added. “To be able to at least be comforted by knowing that they’ll be able to get around or to get out or to get to medical appointments, which is the No. 1 priority, and to get food is so critically important that this is really why transportation is a buzzword these days for older adults.”
Robin Brandies, vice president of development at Abramson Center for Jewish Life, said Abramson received its own federal funding through PennDOT.
“[The Jewish Federation] advocated for the continued funding of transportation services to organizations providing care to seniors,” she said. “We have every reason to believe that us being awarded the [PennDOT] grant was a direct result of their advocacy.”
That $60,000 grant will go exclusively toward transporting seniors to and from the Medical Adult Day Program, which serves low-income seniors by providing them with medical treatment, therapeutic services and recreational activities in Northeast Philadelphia in conjunction with Federation Housing.
“The idea behind the Medical Adult Day Program is that we want to provide services to seniors so they can stay in the community and stay out of nursing home care,” she said.
Many who come to the program need various forms of medical and social care, she added, that they provide during the day.
“A lot of these seniors either don’t have the means or don’t have the capacity to navigate the public transportation system. So there’s a challenge in actually getting the clients to us,” Brandies continued. “And even if they can afford it, many of these seniors have dementia or physical limitations that would prevent them from being able to navigate the public transportation system on their own.”
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