SALISBURY, N.C. >> After putting on his mask, Whitey Harwood opened the door to a white Kia SUV and climbed in the back seat.
He was about to make a trip he’s made countless times: a visit to the VA Medical Center for a doctor’s appointment. Except this time, Harwood was getting there in an Uber. Harwood doesn’t drive due to vision problems, but he still needs transportation, especially to medical appointments.
Harwood isn’t the only older adult in Rowan County who faces this challenge. Reduced mobility is something many seniors deal with. And with the number of residents over the age of 60 expected to increase greatly over the next two decades, it could become an even bigger problem.
Rufty-Holmes Senior Center has noticed this trend and is attempting to counteract it with an innovative solution.
Harwood was the first participant in a new program being piloted by Rufty-Holmes. Called CARS (Connecting Across Rowan for Seniors), the program will help improve the mobility of residents 60 years and older by connecting them with Uber and Lyft drivers.
“We know that the need is there,” said Hanna Stamey, CARS program coordinator for Rufty-Holmes and a master’s student of social work at UNC-Chapel Hill. “We get calls every week with people saying they need transportation, so we’re trying to scale this.”
The program will help older adults who don’t drive with medical-related transportation needs by providing them with rides to doctor’s appointments or to the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions. Rufty-Holmes Executive Director Nan Buehrer said that they will work with seniors who need to have rides subsidized.
CARS works in conjunction with GoGo Grand- parent, a California-based company that sprouted out of the idea of helping seniors use Uber and Lyft ride-sharing services without having to navigate an app. GoGo Grandparent made it possible for seniors to call a number in order to order a ride.
Seniors who are registered with the CARS program will schedule rides by calling Rufty-Holmes, which will then utilize the GoGo Grandparent dashboard to find an available Uber or Lyft driver. A representative from Rufty-Holmes will monitor the ride from start to finish to ensure the rider’s safety. Family members also have the option to monitor the rides and can be notified when their loved one arrives at their destination.
“Another neat feature of the program is that if I’m the daughter and I want to be notified, I can get a text message saying that my mom got picked up from her house and she’s been safely dropped off at the doctor’s office,” Buehrer said.
GoGo Grandparent vets drivers to ensure that they have a 4.6 or higher star rating (the highest possible rating is 5) and that they are operating a car suitable for older adults.
“We will take older adults who have a fold-up walker or a wheelchair,” Buehrer said.
Uber and Lyft have seen their business struggle in recent months as fewer people have utilized ride sharing services, leading to a shortage of drivers in some places. Stamey said that a lack of drivers hasn’t been a problem in the initial tests they’ve conducted, but she does hope that the CARS program could help inspire more people in Rowan County to drive for Uber or Lyft.
“We’re kind of hoping with this program, too, that a few local college students will want to make some extra money by becoming an Uber or Lyft driver,” Stamey said. “We’re also stimulating our local economy with this program.”
If the pilot program is successful, Stamey said, organizers will begin to scale the program up.
“We’re hoping to start taking referrals from outside agencies by the end of the year and maybe by the middle of next year be open to the general public,” Stamey said. “We’re really trying to scale this so that it doesn’t get too big too fast and that we’re able to maintain it.”
The CARS program was made possible through a grant from United Way as well as funding from the city of Salisbury and Rowan County. United Way supports Rufty-Holmes as one of its community investment partners addressing basic needs in Rowan County.
“We want to help people stay independent in their home, and oftentimes it’s transportation that is needed,” Buehrer said.