Aging In Place Is A Thing

Transit adds additional years of access & independence

Champaign-Urbana, IL — When 87-year-old Jean Brown* contacted the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD), she was worried. Bus stops at her favorite shopping center were being moved at the request of the property owner and she wasn’t sure she could make the walk from the remaining stops.

A retired school superintendent from a district near Chicago, Brown was living with family in San Francisco after her husband died when she decided to relocate to Champaign-Urbana some 25 years ago.

She’s never had a car in C-U, opting to ride CUMTD instead. “I was a terrible driver,” said Brown. “I really was. So I did the people who do drive a favor by getting off the roads.”

“…and I thought, This is wonderful! I could manage that part of my life….It’s all a matter of managing, you know?”

Things have changed as she’s aged, “I can walk. I can’t walk far now, but I can walk. These are the limitations. I used to love to walk. Now I can’t walk so far, so I walk less. I can’t carry so much, so I carry less.”

“But getting to [the shopping center] where I can be relatively independent is important. I could get my orange juice, and go to the dollar store, or [the drugstore] for my vitamins and supplements. I could get my things and walk to my [bus] shelter and, frankly, I was never alone. There were always all kinds of people around — young people, middle aged people, older people — and I thought, This is wonderful! I could manage that part of my life. It’s all a matter of managing, you know?”

Managing this newest change is precisely what MTD is hoping to help Brown accomplish. She’s encouraged to schedule ADA Paratransit rides with MTD that would offer curb-to-curb service to the shopping center she’s accustomed to visiting.

Because Brown would prefer to take a bus, she’s asked if there are alternate places where she likes to shop that are more directly served by MTD. Brown is complimentary and kind, but she’s not thrilled with these options. After all, this is her independence she’s talking about; and these habits make up a big part of her life.

“It’s a tough conversation all the way around,” said Karl Gnadt, MTD’s Managing Director. “We held a public hearing last week where four or five residents expressed concern about an annexation that would bring public transit to serve their neighborhoods along with an accompanying tax. And we understand, we really do — we understand when people say they can’t afford to pay taxes toward transit. But what we have to start asking as a community, I think, is can we afford not to offer transit?”

Over the next 20 years, the number of Americans age 65 and older will increase to more than 71 million — growing from 12 to 20 percent of the total population. That’s 1 in 5 American adults.

The issues that come with this “graying of America” are well documented and mobility is critical to addressing them. According to a 2015 Transportation for America study, “seniors age 65 and older who no longer drive make 15 percent fewer trips to the doctor, 59 percent fewer trips to shop or eat out, and 65 percent fewer trips to visit friends and family, than drivers of the same age.”

And while not everyone will opt-in to transit use for as many years as Brown has, “a 2002 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that men in their early 70s who stop driving will need access to transportation alternatives, such as public transportation, for an average of six years; [while] women in the same age group will, on average, need transportation alternatives for ten years.”

“…Only adequate public transportation services can assure that older adults are able to travel as often or as far as they would like, without worrying about inconveniencing others.”

Further the study concludes, “many seniors will rely on relatives or friends to take them around, and….pedestrian-friendly streets and recreational trails built with seniors in mind will help older Americans get around safely and remain active, [too]. But only adequate public transportation services can assure that older adults are able to travel as often or as far as they would like, without worrying about inconveniencing others.”

“The trouble is I’ve been so darn independent my entire life…”

Brown knows this firsthand: “My limitations are growing larger and larger and larger, but…I’m still doing pretty well…. As you get older you do an awful lot of adjusting. And I don’t drive. I have a friend who takes me [shopping elsewhere] when she is taking her grandson home from school. So I’m kind of imposing, which I really don’t like to do.”

“The trouble is I’ve been so darn independent my entire life, and you have to begin to depend. That’s why the [shopping center] and MTD were so great for me, because I could get on the bus, and then I could get off the bus, see?”

MTD offers mobility options to residents of Champaign, Urbana & Savoy, Illinois that include buses, rides for seniors, ADA Paratransit, ZipCar availability, SafeRides home for Illinois students at night, and resources to encourage walkability, biking, and safety.

*While Mrs. Brown gave permission to share her story, her name was changed for publication.