COLLEGE STATION – The question of when to stop driving is often a concern for older individuals and their families. They may disagree about whether someone can drive safely and if an older person may fear losing independence or become a burden to family and friends, according to researchers.
“Transportation issues can be compounded in rural areas where it can be 25 miles to the nearest grocery store and driving may be the only transportation option,” said Alicia Israel, a graduate student in agricultural economics at Texas A&M University. “Rural residents who do not drive face a higher risk of isolation.”
Researchers from Texas A&M University, the Texas AgriLife Extension Service and the Texas Transportation Institute recently surveyed Atascosa, Polk, and Parker county residents to learn about attitudes toward public non-medical transportation options for the rural elderly. A number of researchers have already studied transportation for medical reasons, researchers said.
The release of the study’s findings in May, which is Older Americans Month, provides an opportunity for families and communities to consider safe transportation options for the rural elderly, Israel said.
“I was really excited to work on this project because I grew up in a small rural community,” said Israel, who wrote a master’s thesis based on the study. “I have seen firsthand the isolation that can be caused when an older person can no longer drive, and I hope this research helps the rural elderly to remain active in their communities.”
At least two-thirds of survey respondents in all three counties knew elderly family members and elderly friends who had at least some difficulty driving, according to the results. Twenty-six percent of Atascosa respondents, 32 percent of Polk respondents and 27 percent of Parker respondents believed they would live to be older than age 75 and need transportation assistance.
“It’s not surprising to see that many people see that other people have difficulty driving but don’t believe they will need help,” said Dr. James Mjelde, a professor in the department of agricultural economics at Texas A&M and the lead researcher on the project. “People tend to believe they can remain self-sufficient when it comes to driving. That can be one of the reasons that it is hard for older people to give up their keys.”
On the other hand, 67 percent of Atascosa respondents, 62 percent of Polk respondents, and 45 percent of Parker respondents were not aware that their county had public transportation options, Mjelde said.
“Even among respondents who were aware of the services, about half were not familiar with the local service area, scheduling, fares, or options for senior citizens,” he said.
Texas has rural transportation districts covering the state. However, services vary between districts and counties.
Linda Cherrington, a researcher with the Texas Transportation Institute, said “transportation districts may need to increase marketing efforts and help potential customers learn about the services that can help elderly persons maintain their independence.”
“The survey was conducted as part of a broader study analyzing willingness to pay for transportation services for the elderly,” Cherrington said. “The study was funded through the University Transportation Center for Mobility at the Texas Transportation Institute.”
Atascosa and Polk counties were selected for the survey because they were rural counties representative of two distinct regions in the state, South Texas and East Texas, she said. Parker County in North Central Texas was selected because of its larger population base.
More information about transportation districts and their services is available at http://texastransit.org/attachments/rurals.pdf.