Ninety-year-old Bonnie Baker lives alone in her Red Bank apartment.
Although she's active in her church — helping with the phone ministry, making crafts and writing letters to children as their prayer coach — she also needs others to help her sometimes.
Baker stopped driving about seven years ago, when her waning eyesight forced her to give it up. Now she relies on others for all her transportation needs. Her daughter helps when she can, but it's hard for her to take off work when Baker needs to see one of her five different health care providers, which is often.
Transportation is a major barrier to health and wellbeing for older adults in southeast Tennessee.
Even in areas with public transportation, seniors are often unable to access the services due to cost or mobility issues, since most services won't assist users in getting to the pick-up point.
But through a new program from the Southeast Tennessee Area Agency on Aging and Disability, Baker now has safe and reliable transportation and freedom from the confines of her apartment.
MyRide TN Southeast provides volunteer-assisted transportation to essential appointments for adults ages 60 and older that are able to walk independently or with a walker or cane. The service is now available in parts of Hamilton County and all of Bradley County.
Baker calls the service "an answered prayer," because Chattanooga's public transit system doesn't serve Red Bank. And she can't afford a taxi or rideshare program, which would add up in cost with all her appointments.
Volunteer drivers are well-screened, background checked and trained to provide door-through-door customized assistance, according to the website myridetnse.org. Riders must complete a short screening process and application to begin scheduling rides.
Rides cost $5 per round trip — home to destination and back home — in Hamilton County and $3 per round trip in Bradley County. The fee goes to the office, not the volunteers, to cover background checks and secondary liability insurance for the drivers.
"I know they're safe, and they're friendly and they stay with you up to three hours if you need it," Baker said. "They don't only take you to the doctor's office. They take you shopping, they take you to the bank, they take you to get your hair fixed and just all kinds of places. You just have to give them a three-day notice."
Baker said her health is improving, because she's socializing more and not having to delay her medical appointments. Her first ride was to see her eye doctor in April 2019.
"I don't feel like I'm living in a cave. I'm able to get out and see other people and talk with other people," Baker said.
It's also taken some major stress away from her daughter, she said.
"She would lose more money taking off than she would just to pay for the trip. It's not that she didn't want to take me, it's just the situation," Baker said.
In Hamilton County, MyRide now picks up in the Red Bank, Hixson and Middle Valley areas within the following ZIP codes — 37415, 37405, 37351, 37343 — and rides can be to anywhere within the county. Christin McWhorter, community outreach manager at the Southeast Tennessee Area Agency on Aging and Disability, said the agency plans to expand to other parts of Hamilton County as it recruits more volunteers, but Red Bank was the first priority.
"There's no public transportation in Red Bank, so there's seniors here and working adults who have a transportation need that's not being met," McWhorter said. "We know that as word gets out and more seniors are aware of this service that we'll need volunteers who are willing and ready to help."
Although MyRide can't service people who are in wheelchairs, McWhorter said volunteers are able to help people with walkers and canes get from their houses and into or out of the cars.
"It's not door-to-door or curb-to-curb, which is what a lot of the transportation models are. It's door-through-door — so helping them from their door, to the car, to the appointment," she said. Drivers will either wait at the appointment or run a quick errand before taking the rider home, as long as the total trip time doesn't exceed three hours.
So far, 38 volunteers and 79 riders have signed up, with a total of 1,575 trips completed in Hamilton County and Bradley County combined. McWhorter said the most frequent ride requests have been for medical appointments, followed by trips to the grocery and salon or barber.
Volunteer driver Susan Gruber has taken Baker to three medical appointments, most recently to the audiologist. Gruber said she started driving last summer after she saw a billboard recruiting volunteers.
"I was thinking about my own parents," Gruber said. "They moved here about two years ago from upstate New York, and they're in their mid 80s. I take them to all their doctors' appointments, and I thought, 'What if I can't take them?'"
From a volunteer standpoint, it's simple, easy and only takes a commitment of one ride per month, she said. Volunteers must be 21 or older, have a clean, well-maintained vehicle, complete a background check and attend a training session.
"It's all arranged online," Gruber said. "I wait to see when I know what my schedule is going to be, and if there's something that fits it, I'll grab it."
Funding for MyRide TN is provided through a grant from the Davidson County Chancery Court and a contract administered by the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability.
The next volunteer training for Hamilton County will be on March 26 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 1000 Riverfront Parkway in Chattanooga. Potential volunteers can call 423-424-4201 to sign up.
Gruber said aside from the gratification she gets from volunteering, she's enjoyed getting to know her riders.
"I think we don't give older people the respect that they deserve, and we assume that because you reach a certain age you can't do certain things," she said. "Some you talk to more than with others and you hear their life stories, and I think, 'one of these days that could be me,' and I want to be like Ms. Baker. I want to be willing to try new things and do what I need to do to keep going."
Contact Elizabeth Fite at email@example.com or 423-757-6673.