A service that drives senior citizens to medical appointments is putting out an urgent call for driver volunteers in the Cambridge-Deerfield area.
In 2018, Dane County’s RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program) Driver Escort Service offered about 400 rides in the Cambridge-Deerfield area to people over the age of 60, who for medical or other reasons couldn’t drive themselves, said Julie Schwen, program manager at the Deerfield Community Center.
For at least the past five years, said Schwenn and DCC Board President Todd Tatlock, DCC has been coordinating all of those rides for residents of both Cambridge and Deerfield.
“We’ve been handling Cambridge for a long time,” Tatlock said.
That all changed about a month ago. In early April, a longtime driver, whom Schwenn estimated was covering “95 percent” of the Cambridge-Deerfield need, sometimes making several trips a day, had to resign for personal reasons.
Schwenn said it was quickly clear that DCC’s current pool of drivers could not meet the demand.
It’s not so much a funding issue for DCC, as it is a time issue, Schwenn said.
Beyond its staff time, there is no cost to DCC for administering the program. RSVP directly reimburses drivers for their mileage, with funding from Dane County.
RSVP is a Dane-County-wide volunteer placement agency that finds ways for people over 60 to give of their time in schools and other public places, and in roles like driving the elderly to see the doctor and delivering meals to the home-bound. In all, said Mary Schmelzer, driver services co-manager for RSVP of Dane County, about 75 agencies list their volunteer opportunities with RSVP.
Kristin Gowan, a social worker with the non-profit Cambridge Area Resource Team (CART) said she received a call from Schwenn on April 5, asking if it might be able to find drivers to cover the Cambridge rides.
Schwenn said the number of RSVP senior medical ride calls is about evenly split between Cambridge and Deerfield.
Gowan, who divides her time, working 1 day a week in a contracted role with the non-profit CART and four days a week with students in the Cambridge schools, paid as a full-time school district employee, said CART has been able to successfully take on four of the five calls DCC has sent its way since early April.
Gowan said the Cambridge volunteers who have stepped up to help were part of a CART pool of about 15 drivers already responding to calls to take seniors and others who may not have access to a car, due to low income or other circumstances, to the grocery store, hair appointments and other local destinations.
Unlike with RSVP, whose drivers are over age 60, the CART drivers are not necessarily seniors themselves, Gowan said.
CART is a relatively new organization in Cambridge. It was founded in 2013 to fill a variety of needs in the community, primarily serving low-income families. It has never been affiliated with RSVP, Gowan said.
In 2015, CART began contracting with the Cambridge School District, to fund eight hours of Gowan’s time per week at an office on U.S. Highway 18, in an industrial park. The CART office, other than Gowan, is staffed by volunteers.
Recipients of CART services must live in the Cambridge School District and there are income restrictions.
Gowan said CART was formed after local churches began to recognize that some of the needs in the community were too great for them to continue to handle on their own.
She said before DCC reached out, CART was responding to about 10 general ride requests a month. She said the four RSVP medical rides it has additional given since April have been “new people that we had not been regularly giving rides to.”
Gowan said the RSVP medical senior ride program “is still centralized in Deerfield; (Schwenn) is reaching out to us.”
Gowan said if CART continues to respond to 4-5 RSVP medical rides a month for Cambridge residents, it will need more drivers.
“We would be overwhelmed,” she said. “I would anticipate we would have to put a call out to our Cambridge community for additional drivers to fill the need.”
Gowan said if word got around, she anticipates Cambridge drivers would materialize, given the community’s support in recent years of CART.
“The Cambridge community has been so very generous; there are so many people in Cambridge who want to support those who need it,” Gowan said. “I feel like that will happen with the driving piece.”
Gowan admitted she was “surprised” that 200 of the 400 RSVP medical rides scheduled last year through DCC were for Cambridge riders.
“I was unaware of the number of Cambridge riders that were accessing RSVP through Deerfield,” Gowan said. “I didn’t know the numbers.”
Schwenn said if a half-dozen additional drivers could be found, that would likely cover the need in both communities.
Schwenn said guidelines for drivers include that they are familiar with the local area, are “friendly and welcoming to our riders,” and are able to be flexible on the days they volunteer.
Drivers must have their own car and show proof of insurance, are background checked, and are required to wear a lanyard identifying them as an RSVP volunteer. Their driving records are periodically reviewed.
Riders, meanwhile, must be mobile enough to walk with a walker or a cane; no wheelchair-bound riders are accepted. Seniors must also be living independently in their own home, condominium or apartment.
“They are not transporting completely frail individuals,” Schmelzer said. “It’s people who can’t drive, maybe it’s their vision, maybe their respiratory system is compromised. Generally speaking they’re just people who need a little extra assistance to get where they’re going.”
Some riders are in early stages of dementia, and need more pointed reminder calls that a ride is coming, Schwenn said.
In a rural area with no public transportation, the RSVP Driver Escort Service fills a vital niche, Schwenn said.
“Not having a public transportation system (that seniors) can just hop on and hop off of, really presents a challenge in any rural community,” Schwenn said.
“Many of them don’t have anybody who can take them to appointments during the day. Some of them don’t have family in the area.”
“We don’t even have a local bus that would come once a day, or anything like that,” agreed Bob Korb, of Deerfield, who has driven with RSVP since 2012.
Schmelzer said even if seniors have family in the area, their children might not be available for weekday medical appointments because they have to work. That becomes more even more challenging for seniors who need to get to frequent medical appointments, she said.
Tatlock said though it’s not technically part of the service, and is encouraged to be kept to a minimum, DCC has found that its drivers are willing to be flexible, making a quick stop at a pharmacy or even at a grocery store after a medical appointment, if requested.
Both Tatlock and Schwenn stressed the Driver Escort Service is not generally intended for other than medically-related rides.
Schmelzer similarly said the Driver Escort Service volunteers do sometimes take senior to places other than hospitals and clinics, for instance, to visit a family member in a long-term care facility. Whether a community center or senior center that coordinates the local rides can accommodate those kinds of trips is up to them, she said.
There are other area programs that that can take seniors on those other kinds of rides, including another RSVP service — Vets Helping Vets — in which military veterans drive military veterans to appointments.
Hazel Keller, 99, of Deerfield, is a regular RSVP rider. On a recent day, she was picked up by Korb.
He took her to Madison for an eye doctor appointment, waited for two hours for her, and then brought her back home.
Keller said she stopped driving 18 years ago. She called the Driver Escort Service “a wonderful thing when you don’t have any way of getting places.”
Schmelzer said county-wide, there are more than 600 RSVP drivers.
“That’s a big number of volunteers,” she said.
But, she said, the county could use more. The Driver Escort Service has been around for about 45 years, and in recent years has struggled to recruit volunteers for a host of reasons.
She said factors believed to reducing that volunteer pool include that people are working longer than they used to, and are helping care for grandchildren and elderly, disabled and ill adult family members.
“Volunteerism is in a dip right now and we’re trying to figure out exactly why. We are in a constant state of recruitment. That’s just our reality,” Schmelzer said.
Driving demands flexibility and patience. On the day he was transporting Keller, Korb had to maneuver around a construction zone, going one further exit on the Beltline and then maneuvering back through heavy midday traffic.
Keller “has a good attitude,” Korb, 72, a retired analyst for the State of Wisconsin, said. “Most of my riders have really good attitudes.”
Korb said he has been feeling the pinch of the shortage of drivers in recent weeks, and has tried to help out.
“I’ve had more rides in the past couple of weeks that I normally have in two months,” Korb said.
Riders “are very appreciative, for sure,” he said, and he said he enjoys getting to know them.
“The riders almost always know where to go, where do you turn left, right, whatever,” he joked. “ “A lot of times the riders will tell me, ‘you know, you can get there faster taking this street.’”
He said the Driver Escort Service ensures that seniors are transported to critical appointments in a manner in which they’re “respected and have dignity.”
Korb, who also is a volunteer driver with Vets Helping Vets, said he isn’t available every day.
“I always take Friday off,” he said. “When I am in the area I have lunch with friends on Friday.”
And like many people his age in retirement, he is often out of town travelling. Sometimes, he said, he is away for long stretches.
Schmelzer said, demographically, demand for the service is only going to grow.
“We know that by 2030 we are going to see a huge demographic shift because of the Baby Boomers aging,” she said. By then, she said, “about 20 percent of the Dane County population is going to be seniors.”
She encouraged people approaching or at retirement age to consider volunteering.
“Pay it forward now so it’s there when you need it,” she said. “Someday you will be those elders.”