Give the Gift of a Lift
NEET Program Provides Rides and a Sense of Freedom for Older Adults
When Virginia Salem wrote to MVM’s editor to request that we cover the transportation crisis for older people, she shared the following quote from writer and columnist Emilie-Noelle Provost: “Driving to a destination provides a sense of freedom after being cooped up for months in isolation,” To which, Salem posed the question: “Can you imagine what it must feel like if you no longer drove?”
Salem is the administrator for Northern Essex Elder Transport Inc. (NEET), a nonprofit volunteer program serving older adults in many Merrimack Valley cities and towns. Volunteers are sourced through NEET, but rides are arranged through local councils on aging. Salem started her connection to NEET as a volunteer driver. She discovered the program when she was an activity coordinator at a senior center and saw that people were having trouble getting to events she was planning. She now works full time for NEET and is eager to see the program grow, noting, “The more volunteers we get, we can expand the services that we offer. Right now, we have to prioritize medical appointments.” But that’s not enough to meet the needs of our elders. “As we age,” Salem explains, “the average person starts limiting their driving, and that makes them isolate.”
Salem cites a 2018 national survey that assessed transportation experiences and needs of older adults, younger adults with disabilities and transportation caregivers. The research illuminated a clear and expanding need for reliable transportation for older adults and the disabled. With an estimated 1 in 5 individuals over the age of 65 no longer driving, and 600,000 older Americans giving up their driver’s license every year, the need is only growing.
It starts with older adults only going out for essentials and only driving to medical appointments. Over time, they risk losing connection with their communities. “I’m hoping people who have felt isolation and loneliness during COVID-19 will understand what it could be like to be an elder who cannot drive, and consider volunteering,” Salem says. “Being a volunteer driver really does provide friendship and companionship for both [the rider and the driver].” Another good reason Salem is motivated to develop a robust transportation program? She knows she might need the service herself someday.
Jane McNeal has been a volunteer driver for NEET since 2008. “I read about it in the flyer from the Newbury Council on Aging,” she says. “McNeal has lived on Plum Island for more than 40 years. It’s a community, she says, that takes care of one another. So to her, helping others is second nature.” At the start of the program, rides were only provided to and from medical appointments, McNeal says. Services have expanded at times since then because of the varying needs of the people NEET assists. Some trips McNeal has provided have included flower visits to the grave of the rider’s spouse, picking up items at the grocery store, taking a trip to the hairdresser, and helping a dying man fulfill his last wish to go to the dog tracks and have some fun. “I’d love to see this [program] expand,” McNeal says. “Helping somebody makes you feel so good.” Volunteers are provided supplementary insurance, mileage reimbursement, and an opportunity to connect with an older person in their community. Since 1981 volunteers have driven over 200 million miles in service of older adults. For 91-year-old June Bell, the NEET program provides a ride and peace of mind.
“They are fantastic. … I’ve used them twice. I’m impressed,” Bell says. “I am so comfortable with NEET, I wouldn’t want to depend on anyone else. I’m just so pleased with the program.” Part of what one can expect when riding with NEET drivers is a call from the accepting driver to introduce themselves, confirm the ride and explain the process, then a call again the night before to reconfirm and answer any questions the rider might have. The goal is to help riders feel at ease. Many NEET riders have poor vision, arthritis, and are on a fixed income, and navigating an app on an expensive smartphone often is not feasible. NEET rides are given at no cost to the rider, although donations are accepted when offered.
Salem says most volunteers are retired or semiretired. Drivers can choose to drive a little or a lot. Would you give an older adult the gift of a lift?
For more information on volunteering and accessing services,visit DriveForNEET.org.