Popular driver network offers freedom, independence to seniors

Nancy Schuster saw the painful confrontation first-hand. She watched her parents try to convince her grandmother to hand over her car keys. But in the end, it took an intervention by her family doctor to drive the point home. 

"She wouldn't listen to any of us," says Schuster, 46. "It gave me a much better appreciation for the challenges that are out there."

When she learned of an opening to direct the new Independent Transportation Network of Greater Cincinnati, a program developed last year by the Deaconess Association's Foundation, she saw an important opportunity.

The statistics are scary for every driver and any child with senior parents holding on tightly to their car keys as a path to freedom, independence and control of their lives. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that drivers 85 and over are nine times more likely to die behind the wheel as their counterparts aged 25 through 69.

The ITN Greater Cincinnati serves seniors and people with visual impairments who live and travel within the I-275 loop. The process is as simple as it is powerful: riders join the network for a $75 annual fee, then pay a pick-up fee and a per-mileage rate to cover their transportation needs, which range from trips to the doctor to the grocery to the beauty parlor. The average cost for a round-trip service is about $10, depending on distance. "We offer all of our members door through door, arm through arm service," Schuster says.

She is also a volunteer driver, and regularly takes a rider to the Sycamore Senior Center. While most trips are practical necessities, some are pure fun. One volunteer driver took a regular rider to a night out at Eddie Merlot's; December brought many Christmas shopping trips.

Bonds develop quickly between drivers and riders. "It happens naturally," Schuster says. "Even when you are driving someone once or twice, you still form those relationships. We've become part of their families."

Before the end of 2010, ITN Greater Cincinnati had given more than 1,000 rides with just a dozen drivers and fewer than 100 member riders. This year, demand has grown each month. "We've driven more than 30,000 miles," Schuster says.

Volunteer drivers get more than good will in return for their efforts. They get automatic membership in the network, which they can donate to anyone they like. In one of the program's most innovative strategies, drivers can choose to be reimbursed directly for their mileage or bank their credits in their own Transportation Social Security Accounts. They can also give them to a friend or loved one, or to a rider in need. 

"You are doing a charitable act, but it's so much more," Schuster says.

As the demand for rides continues to increase alongside gas prices, Schuster says the ITN Greater Cincinnati plans to be able to offer scholarships for low-income riders by this summer. 

Do Good:

Be a rider. Click to learn more about how to donate your services.

 Make a donation. Click and make a tax-deductible donation to help seniors ride with pride.

 Give a gift. Know someone who could benefit from ITN Greater Cincinnati's services? Gift a membership or sponsor regular visits to the mall.  

 By Elissa Yancey

Photo courtesy of ITN Greater Cincinnati

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.