BY JAMES FARRELL
From April through June, between the hours of 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., Erin Brennan, the senior program director at the SelfHelp Clearview senior center, became a telephone operator.
She fielded between 30 and 50 calls between those three hours each day from seniors living in northeast Queens. They were requesting free rides to doctors’ appointments, the senior center and cultural centers as part of a pilot program that offered free car service for seniors living in the 19th City Council district. Brennan guesses that the center served more than 300 unique individuals during the program’s tenure. Demand was so high that the center had to stop offering rides to seniors, unless they had regular doctors’ appointments, on June 16. That was nearly two weeks before the $40,000 in funding, allocated by Councilman Paul Vallone (D-Bayside), was scheduled to run out.
For seniors living in northeast Queens, reliable, affordable transportation is a rare and precious resource. Northeast Queens is often referred to as a ‘transit desert,’ with no subway lines outside of Flushing and relatively thin bus service compared to other parts of the city. Seniors who can’t drive are often forced to find alternatives.
“I think for some it’s very frustrating,” Brennan said. “They can’t stand and wait for the bus or it’s a distance from their house.”
Private car service and taxi cabs can get expensive, especially for those on fixed incomes, Brennan said, and many seniors find city programs such as Access-A-Ride to be unreliable. Slow services create anxiety for seniors, she added, who may already be anxious about getting to an important doctor’s appointment on time. At the Clearview Center, Brennan has seen seniors subjected to long waits and instances where the service arrived far away from the pick-up location, forcing seniors to work longer-than-necessary distances.
“They’re afraid they’re going to get stuck and they don’t have a backup route,” Brennan said. “You’re asking someone in their 80s and 90s waiting for an hour and a half.”
Bobbie Sackman, associate executive director of public policy at citywide senior advocacy organization LiveOn NY said that while she isn’t familiar with the geography of northeast Queens, transportation issues have unique implications in residential, suburban communities—such as Whitestone or Bayside.
“If there’s a community that’s a little more suburban style in the way it’s laid out, you’re not going to be able to walk to your stores,” she said. “You definitely need that transportation.”
But Sackman said that even with more mass transit, seniors would still face unique issues in terms of mobility, given that public transit can often be difficult for aging individuals to use. The solution, she said, lies in what she calls “community-based transportation”—localized transit services, such as senior center vans, that help seniors do food shopping, get to doctors’ appointments and accomplish daily tasks.
“That’s a necessary amenity in a local neighborhood that mass transit’s not going to meet,” Sackman said.
The Department for the Aging (DFTA) recently “expanded its transportation contracts citywide to better serve seniors in more areas,” according to spokeswoman Zenovia Earle. In Queens, that expansion includes transportation contracts with the Jamaica Service Program for Older Adults for seniors living in Community Districts 8 through 14 and the Hellenic American Neighborhood Action Committee serving Community Districts 1 through 7. Those programs can give individual rides to seniors who call to arrange certain trips, such as doctor’s appointments.
Additionally, DFTA will put out a Request for Proposals, as part of a Federal Transit Administration grant, that will provide “on-demand, 24-7 car service via an app or a dispatcher for seniors who would rather call to supplement the expansion of our citywide transportation contracts,” Earle added. Community District 7—which contains Flushing, Whitestone and College Point—will be among those serviced by the program.
“The effects of social isolation can have serious consequences for seniors’ physical and mental health,” said DFTA Commissioner Caryn Resnick. “Senior centers and our transportation programs go a long way in easing that isolation for many older New Yorkers.”
In northeast Queens, many seniors are upset that the short-lived pilot program at the SelfHelp Clearview Senior Center has ended.
Gloria Boehringer, 74, teaches classes at the Clearview Senior Center and used its transportation pilot program to take her husband, who has Alzheimer’s, to a doctor’s appointment, where he was expected to get a procedure done. While Boehringer can drive, she was concerned about doing so with her sick husband in the car in case he needed attention while she was behind the wheel. She said that the driver from the Four Two’s car service company was on time, calmed her nerves about the appointment and provided an umbrella when it rained.
“It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience,” she said.
Boehringer added that without the program, two senior friends who don’t drive rely on her for rides to the center. The careful pre-planning required to coordinate trips was often frustrating.
“It bothered them,” Boehringer said. “They lived in a vicinity that none of the buses drop them off near the center. So, either they had to take two buses, which were very inconvenient, or they had to call a cab.”
The Queens Tribune also received several phone calls from seniors inquiring about the program in response to a story announcing its launch. Some, who were not in the 19th Council District, were disappointed to learn they were not in the program’s jurisdiction.
A 90-year-old Flushing resident named Ethel—who declined to give her last name—was one of those who called and was not in the district. At the time, she felt isolated and depressed and was having difficulty finding a steady, affordable way of getting to nearby senior centers for socialization. Twice a month, a service known as CAPE that is based in the Little Neck’s Samuel Field Y, offers services to take her out to a support group that she joined while her husband was battling Alzheimer’s. That provides her with some relief.
“We’re living longer and a lot of us are functioning, but we’re just trapped,” she said. “In the cold weather or even if it’s not cold, but raining, there’s really nothing. You can’t get anywhere.”
Vallone said that he is working on refunding the program, and has been hearing from neighboring council members who seem interested in setting up similar programs in their districts.
“I think it’s exceptional out here in northeast Queens because of our complete lack of transportation alternatives,” Vallone told the Queens Tribune. “We really have seniors trapped at home.”