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Outside the Box: No license, no problem — check out these options for seniors who no longer drive

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When Emily Leonard moved from Manhattan to West Hartford, Conn., to live near her sister, she felt isolated.

Living in a retirement community, she wanted more in her life. “I needed something,” says Leonard, now 92. “I didn’t have an objective.” So, she decided to get a master’s degree in American studies soon after moving to The McAuley in 2012.

Yet, the tricky part of living in West Hartford was figuring out how to get around, especially at night.

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Leonard had hired a car and driver when she visited her sister. She continued to use the service for long-distance rides along with a daytime driver for three-hour shopping excursions at $20 an hour and rides for doctor’s appointments provided by The McAuley.

Then she heard about ITN Central Connecticut, a volunteer driving service that charges less than taxis. The service requires passengers to pay in advance through individual accounts so that no money changes hands during rides.

Volunteer drivers would pick Leonard up at 5:30 in the afternoon for her class once a week scheduled from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and bring her home from the Trinity College campus by 9:30 at night. The cost was $13 roundtrip compared with $22 for a cab. “And you can’t count on the cab.” Leonard says. ITN Central Connecticut “took a real interest in what I was doing,” she says. They “added so much to the experience.” Over time, Leonard became friends with her driver, retired lawyer John Lemega and his wife, Joyce.

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ITN Central Connecticut, part of ITN America, Independent Transportation Network of America, also charges a membership fee of $40 per year for an individual person and $65 for a family.

Living in Manhattan for much of her life, Leonard “was used to getting around without a car.” When she did drive it was for her work in public relations, yet her driving days came to an end in 1993 when she developed a vision issue.

Leonard is far from alone. In fact, according to findings published in the American Journal of Public Health, Americans outlive their ability to drive safely — for women by 10 years on average, and for men by seven years.

For Leonard, not driving hasn’t stopped her from living life in a meaningful way. Yet, others who lose the ability to drive, grieve the loss, says psychiatric nurse and licensed social worker Leslie Eckford, co-author of Choose Your Place; Rethinking Home as You Age, among other books.

Retirees cannot necessarily rely on family members to drive them; either relatives live too far away to help or may be unable to give rides because they are working full time.

Eckford has led workshops on aging issues that include a session on preparing for a time when you can no longer drive.

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The ease in finding and employing drivers, whether to drive your vehicle or their own, depends on your location. The cost “varies so widely from state to state, city to city,” Eckford says.

When Joni McIlvain of Bethesda, Md., stopped driving after an illness in 2017, she needed another way to get around. “I had lost most of my vision,” she says. McIlvain, who worked at the White House as a volunteer for 34 years until 2016, used to rely on taxis to take her from her house to nearby doctor’s appointments. “The drivers would give me their cellphone numbers so I could call them directly,” she says. “If I called the they would charge $15 to $25 one way to get home” for a fare that would normally be $11. “Four to five years ago I quit doing that.”

A member of Little Falls Village in Bethesda, McIlvain, 83, decided it was time to utilize rides by volunteer drivers, among the range of services villages — approximately 300 nationally — typically provide. The annual cost of being a member of a village varies; for example, full membership in Little Falls Village, a 501 c (3) tax-exempt organization, costs $350 a year. The Village to Village Network has 250 members, and the website provides a map of villages in the U.S. by ZIP Code.

Transportation to medical appointments, grocery shopping and routine errands is the most requested service. Village members are those who prefer to stay in their own homes rather than move to an active adult community, continuing care retirement community or independent living.

Lisa Owen, the volunteer who has regularly driven McIlvain, says “We are an organization that is helping seniors. You can’t lean on the child (who doesn’t live nearby) but you can lean on us.” Owen is a member of the board of directors of Little Falls Village. Retirees who need help getting around want help from “someone with affiliation,” Owen says. Drivers often develop friendships with their drivers.

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“I consider her a close friend,” says McIlvain.

Typically, major American cities have public transportation including subways and buses. Yet, in the U.S., three-quarters of those 65 and older live in rural or suburban communities, according to a National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and ITN America white paper, “Environmental Scan of Ride Share Services Available for Older Adults.”

Getting around when you can’t drive can come as a surprise. A family member may suggest you stop driving or a physician may tell you must turn in your car keys. The need for transportation extends to people in many different situations. “There’s a tendency to think that the only people who need services are poor, older people,” says Katherine Freund, founder of ITN America. That’s not so, she says. Transportation needs to be available to every socioeconomic group.

Other resources include Rides in Sight, the National Volunteer Transportation Center (Community Transportation (ctaa.org)) and Walkscore.

This story was updated to correct the name of Joyce Lemega.

Harriet Edleson is author of the book, “12 Ways to Retire on Less: Planning an Affordable Future” (Rowman & Littlefield). A former staff writer/editor/producer for AARP, she writes for The Washington Post Real Estate section.

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