New Portland transportation service provides rides for aging population

BY KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

As populations across the state of Tennessee age, the city of Portland is joining the growing number of communities offering alternative transportation services for elderly residents.
Portland Adult Transportation (PAT) is a new service being offered by Portland CARES and has been funded through a $50,000 grant the city of Portland received from The Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability to provide transportation services for seniors.

Through the program, Portland residents who are 60 or older can pay either a $25 yearly fee or $5 per ride and be taken anywhere within Portland’s city limits by volunteer drivers. Riders must schedule trips at least three days in advance and are allowed to make three stops per round trip.

The program comes at a time when many communities across Tennessee are looking to provide more support for aging populations.
According to the 2018 State of Aging in Tennessee report issued by the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability, Tennessee is expected to see 32 percent growth in the number of senior citizens living in the state with those over the age of 65 accounting for 20 percent of the state’s population by 2030. An estimated 28 percent of those seniors will live alone and around 10 percent will not own a vehicle. However, these residents often still wish to retain their independence.

Terri DeZwarte, coordinator of the PAT program, said Portland has received a lot of positive feedback on the program from senior residents who want to retain their independence but don’t want their need to travel to inconvenience loved ones.

“We want seniors to be a little bit more independent, especially as far as scheduling the things they need to do or want to do,” DeZwarte said. “As we’ve been talking with seniors, many of them have a family member or two that are close but not necessarily readily available. They don’t want their kids to take off work to do something like that. A lot of them would like a little more independence as far as doctor’s appointments but also visiting the library and senior center. We want to help them be a little bit more social. Some of them just would like to go through the drive-thru and get a burger.”

DeZwarte said the program has been in the works for more than a year.

“The city of Portland, the mayor’s office and Penny Martin who runs Portland CARES had been talking about creating this program for 18 months,” she said. “They had to go through all of the paperwork and seek out grants for the program. Right now, the program will only offer rides in the city limits of Portland. We are hoping as the program grows we can expand the area we service and the hours we offer rides.”

DeZwarte said the organization already has several riders signed up and is still working to train volunteers for the program before the service officially launches in the fall.
“We have several assisted living facilities here, and a lot of those residents don’t have cars or no longer drive,” she said. “There is a great need for this kind of service. We have had a lot of interest and have received a lot of calls already.”

Volunteers for the program must be at least 21, have a valid driver’s license, and undergo a background check with at least three hours per month committed to the program. DeZwarte said Portland CARES will also have training sessions with volunteers on issues such as courtesy and how to help seniors who may have mobility issues.
“We are doing basic backgrounds on assistance for elderly folks and handicapped folks,” DeZwarte said. “We don’t anticipate a lot of great lifting, but we are transporting people with oxygen and walkers. We are doing training on how to treat these clients, how to talk to them, and an online training program about assisted rides.”

Volunteers will have magnetic stickers they can put on their cars and personal identification badges to show they are part of the PAT program. That way, participants can easily identify the person who has come to pick them up.

DeZwarte said volunteers can also derive benefit from the program.
“I have volunteered so much myself, and just the fulfillment you get for helping another person is wonderful,” she said. “It’s a great way to meet new people and to know that you’re helping someone keep their independence. Even if you just made someone smile or got them out into some fresh air, it warms your heart and fills you up as much as you’re helping them.”

As America’s population continues to age, DeZwarte said she can see other similar programs being developed statewide.
“I think these programs are catching on, and there are probably a lot more out there than we really know about,” she said. “Smaller communities often don’t have taxis or city bus services. A lot of older residents have health issues or don’t feel secure driving themselves, but they still have things they need to do. A lot of seniors are also on a fixed income, so they have to watch what they spend. We hope that as this program catches on it spreads out so we can offer more to more people.”