April 23, 2019
By Meghan McCarty Carino
April 23, 2019
[This is an excerpt of the California Dream collaboration’s Graying California. Explore the full series here.]
As this group ages, seniors have become the fastest growing demographic in California. Their numbers will nearly double to about 9 million over the next decade. Many counties that will see the steepest increases in older adults are rural or suburban areas where most rely on cars to get around.
The incentive to age in place is even stronger in California, where Proposition 13 locked in lower property taxes for long-time homeowners. The explosion of real estate prices in the state means moving to denser central neighborhoods more amenable to transit or walking is out of the financial reach of many.
Los Angeles resident Regina Jones had her dream of downsizing to a compact neighborhood dashed by high prices.
“I just wanted someplace with good walking-distance shopping and a little place to grab a bite to eat,” she said.
But when the 77-year old tried to sell her longtime single-family home in central L.A. about 10 years ago, she found she couldn’t afford to move to the neighborhoods she desired, like Culver City or West Hollywood.
A growing body of research demonstrates that isolation is one of the biggest threats to the health of older adults, and transportation plays a huge role in the problem.
“The two are interlinked,” said Stephanie Ramirez, associate state director of advocacy with AARP California. “Transportation is a critical need for older adults to be able to access health care and access opportunities to be social in their community.”
A 2017 study by AARP, Stanford and Harvard universities found socially isolated seniors were more likely to die prematurely, require care in a nursing facility, and incur an additional $1,600 a year in Medicare costs, totalling $6.7 billion in annual expenses nationwide.
Meanwhile, non-driving seniors in Los Angeles made fewer trips outside the home and endured long, uncomfortable rides on public transit or risked potentially hazardous walks on busy streets, according to a joint study by UCLA and USC supported by AARP in 2018.
While Jones enjoys better access to transit than many suburban neighborhoods in California, she finds walking to bus stops, the lack of seating while waiting, and the often long trips with multiple transfers to be uncomfortable and inconvenient.
It’s freedom for me. I just call Lyft freedom.~ Regina Jones, Active senior and Lyft user
Jones also has access to two paratransit services — dial-a-ride programs provided by the city and county — that provide door-to-door rides for seniors and others with disabilities. But those come with their own challenges — the need to plan a day or more in advance, wait up to an hour for pickup, and share the ride with strangers resulting in no predictability about how long a trip will take.
“It just became harder and harder as I healed and started wanting to do more,” Jones said.
“It’s freedom for me,” she said. “I just call Lyft freedom.”
But that freedom costs about $300 per month, about a fifth of her monthly income. Jones can afford the bill now, but she couldn’t if she had to cover the high cost of living in California on her own.
“I think the solution is an economic one,” said Ramirez of AARP.
Many cities in California provide seniors who are unable to drive some form of subsidy for taxis, either through discounted fare coupons or the option to apply a paratransit fare toward the full cost of a private ride.
Schweitzer of USC pointed to a similar contract her university has with Uber to provide subsidized rides around campus.
“That’s something that cities can also do,” she said.
A few localities are experimenting with a hybrid approach, leveraging the technology of ride-hailing apps and applying them to a more traditional public paratransit model known as microtransit.
“That would be helpful,” said Schweitzer. “It would probably do a great deal to lessen the isolation that people who are car-dependent feel.”
But she cautions, for these technology solutions to work and to meet the huge demand that’s anticipated, they’ll require big investments by the public, on the order of the massive ones the state made to build the freeways at the dawn of the baby boomer era.
“As a society, we need to realize that things cost money, and that taking care of people in a way that allows them to maintain their health longer is actually a savings,” she said.