Getting out and around became more complicated for Ed and Lilyann Yokel when they moved out of their home and into an assisted living facility last spring. The couple, who are in their 90s, were used to depending on friends and neighbors for rides to various appointments and engagements. But, such arrangements were no longer convenient in their new neighborhood.
In an effort to help their parents maintain as much of their lifestyle as possible, the Yokels' three sons - who all live in other states - found a solution to their transportation needs in ITNRacine County. ITN stands for Independent Transportation Network, and Racine County's program is part of a network of 16 ITN America affiliates nationwide - the purpose of which is to provide sustainable, community-based transportation services for seniors.
A nonprofit organization, ITN differs from some other senior transport services in that it will transport people for just about any purpose, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, using regular automobiles and volunteer drivers. While some services limit their trip to essential destinations, such as medical appointments, ITN gives rides to restaurants, friends' homes, the theater, a grandson's soccer game or wherever the rider wants to go. ITN riders are also not limited in their ride frequency, and even last-minute requests can be made (rides booked by 4 p.m. the day prior to the ride have the lowest rate).
Such flexibility is something the Yokels say they appreciate. While the couple uses the service most often for medical appointments and social engagements - such as a recent birthday party - they also know that when their friends aren't available to take them to church, they can call ITN. "They are very dependable," said Lilyann. "It is a great service."
To qualify as an ITN rider, clients must be at least 60 years old, or be an adult with visual impairment. They must also purchase an annual membership in the service ($50 per individual or $75 for a family), as well as a prepaid Personal Transportation Account, based on estimated usage (the average pick-up and mileage charge is $10, with no tipping allowed). A Road Scholarship program is available for low-income riders, and a special, $10 trial membership is being offered in September/October.
The pre-paid system makes it easier for riders, as they don't have to have cash on hand, explained Susan Feehrer, executive director of ITNRacine County. And the membership aspect creates a feeling of ownership in the program, she said.
ITN is based on a self-sustaining, financial model with private funding, rather than relying on tax dollars, she said. "It really is a community-based, grassroots organization that gets people safely from point A to point B."
Since the program "put wheels to the road" in Racine in mid-March of this year, it has provided 325 rides, Feehrer said. And the need for such services will increase, as the number of seniors behind the wheel is growing rapidly. By 2030, the number of licensed drivers ages 65 and older is expected to nearly double to about 57 million, she said, and the senior crash rate is just below that of teens.
"ITN is a win-win situation that not only allows seniors to maintain their freedom, but helps solve the senior transportation problem."
The Yokels' son, John, said that he and his brothers are very happy with the service, which helps keep his parents from feeling isolated, by allowing them to stay in touch with their friends.
"It has given my folks their independence back."
Both he and his parents especially appreciate the fact that ITN offers "door-to-door" service, which includes assistance with a walker, when needed, he said.
"That has been a life-saver for my folks."
Ken Wagner, another ITN rider in Racine, said he, too, is grateful to have drivers pick him up and drop him off at his door. Since suffering a stroke, Wagner can only walk short distances, limiting his ability to take the city bus. He still enjoys going out to eat, however, and often uses the ride service to transport him to his favorite restaurants.
Wagner, who taught school in Racine for more than 30 years, said he also enjoys the company of the ITN drivers - one of whom is a former student of his. "All of them have been really, very nice."
John Yokel said he and his brothers have also found the staff and volunteers at ITN to be very responsible and helpful in making arrangements for his parents. "They go out of their way to make sure everything is working the way it should be."
ITN's volunteer drivers, too, seem grateful to be part of the program.
"I like the idea that I can help someone have some freedom to get out and go when they feel like it," said Marlene Schulz, who along with her husband, Jerry, has been driving for ITN for several months. "We feel like this is something we would want to have available to us when the time comes."
The Schulzes, who are both retired, enjoy their time volunteering with ITN so much that they have already recommended it to some of their friends.
"You get to meet different people and it feels good to be able to help someone who actually needs help," said Jerry.
Qualifications for being an ITNRacine County driver include having a clean driving record for three years and being interested in working with senior citizens, according to Feehrer. Personal interviews are conducted with each volunteer and a training program is provided. Drivers are reimbursed for some of their mileage costs, as well as receiving transportation credits which can be saved for your own later use, or donated to other riders.
"Our seniors are a treasure," Feehrer said. "They have so many stories that need to be told and heard. This service is as much about making those connections as it is about giving rides."
For more about ITN Racine County - including other ways individuals and area businesses can get involved - go to http://itnracinecounty.net or call (262) 554-1091.