By David Dykes
Older South Carolinians overwhelmingly prefer to stay in their homes and communities as they age.
That was the conclusion of the South Carolina State Plan on Aging 2017-2021, underscoring the state’s challenges in helping older adults and people with disabilities.
“In order for South Carolina to reach her full potential, it is important to provide our senior population with the tools and services they need to stay independent in their own homes and communities,” then-Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster said.
The state plan, released by in July 2016 by the Lieutenant Governor’s Office on Aging, was critical, state officials said, to understanding that as the state’s senior population grows, policies must be set, and a delivery system coordinated for essential home and community-based services to assist older adults.
Transportation was among the state needs identified.
“There’s a few ways to look at this,” says Gary Shepard, director of public transportation for Greenlink, Greenville’s public transit system. “But the most important is that, yes, this is a growing population, and it certainly is growing here in this part of South Carolina and will continue to grow rapidly.”
A critical issue is mobility “and the ability for a variety of agencies to come together–whether it’s elder affairs or transportation in both the public and private sector–to address these issues,” Shepard says. “It’s certainly a priority issue when it comes to getting our elderly population the very best health care possible. It’s also an issue then of quality of life and an issue for not only those who are elderly but our children who worry about us and how they will take care of us.”
South Carolina’s senior population is among the fastest growing in the nation. The population age 60 years and older is projected to increase to 1,450,487 by the year 2030. Many will have health challenges, and many will live in rural areas.
Greenville County Councilman Fred Payne, who isn’t seeking re-election this year, is a board member of the Carolinas Alliance for Innovation, a Greenville nonprofit corporation promoting innovation solutions in transportation, infrastructure, engineering, and education for the purpose of economic development.
Its initial projects, according to the corporation’s website, include testing autonomous vehicles, also known as driverless or self-driving cars. Another is development of a driverless taxi system.
“The scariest thing for a senior is when their children come to them and say, ‘Dad, Mom, we think we need to take your keys,” Payne, 77, says. “‘We can’t let you drive this car anymore because it’s too dangerous.’”
Experts say seniors drive as long as possible because they aren’t aware of, or don’t believe they have, other means of transportation.
In a December 2014 report to congressional committees, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said that as the U.S. population ages, transportation will be a critical service to helping older adults remain in their homes as long as possible.
Older adults who are no longer able to drive rely on transportation options for health and medical appointments, grocery shopping, social events, and other life-sustaining and life-enhancing activities. In addition, as people age, their physical, visual, and cognitive abilities may decline, making it more difficult for them to drive safely, the report said.
A decline in mobility can severely decrease an older person’s quality of life, leading to issues such as fewer out-of-home activities, increases in health and nutrition problems, and isolation, it said.
The officials also said there was limited data on the extent of older adults’ transportation needs given the growing population of older adults. That could hinder coordination, it said.
The state plan on aging called for an annual performance measure that gauges work with area agencies on aging to increase the number of clients using transportation services by 10 percent, depending on available funding sources. It also called for expanding the number of volunteers by five percent.
Strategies include building on the success of S.C. Department of Transportation grants using volunteers in the assisted rides program and identifying additional funding from federal, state, and other grant sources.
Other steps should address access to medical services for preventative health care measures and access to non-medical services to avoid isolation of older adults without transportation, the plan says.
“The time has come to have a real focus on elderly transportation to be addressed properly,” Shepard says. “We have a variety of social service agencies providing some transportation and some of it is not as coordinated, as effective, as cost efficient as it can be.”
The bottom line is funding and dedicated revenue sources from state and local governments, he says. But it’s not just a money issue to him. It’s also a service-delivery issue.
Elderly residents, he says, “can’t be held hostage in their homes.”