Transportation for Seniors – We’re Going Places #1

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Guest blogger Alex Iselin provides an important lens through which to view transportation for older adults.

Part 1 of a 3-part series

Ride-sharing services and other transportation options certainly afford non-driving seniors a sense of independence. A senior may not be able to drive anymore, but she can still get around. But I believe that even the best ride-sharing services out there may be missing the mark in one critical way. What was it like for these seniors to drive in the first place?  

Let’s take a step back. Why might seniors need help with transportation? They may no longer be able to transport themselves. Many of these individuals are unable to bicycle or walk long distances, live far from the nearest bus stop, and no longer drive. Particularly for those who drove in the past, the implications of giving up a driver’s license are significant. Driving provides us with a powerful sense of independence. Whenever we want, we can just go. No arrangements, no approvals, and no assistance. And if desired, with no destination. This liberty is tough to rival. Yet when seniors stop driving, we may replace a driver’s license with a new solution. We’ll drive grandma ourselves. We’ll hire a personal driver. We’ll walk mom to the bus stop before we go to work. We’ll train grandpa to use his smartphone and use a ride-sharing service. We offer great alternatives, but ignore what has been lost.

For those of us who drive, or used to drive, we know the feeling of closing the driver-side door and fastening our seat belt. We turn the key, just enough to hear the light ticking sound, and then we release slightly as the motor is injected with energy and roars with potential. We take hold of the steering wheel. With an automatic transmission, we push the button on the shifter, and pull it backwards into the appropriate gear slot. For those who prefer a manual transmission, we exert a force to navigate the shifter into gear, and then slowly let up on the clutch with one foot while simultaneously giving the gas pedal a gradual push with the other. Each of these detailed movements demands coordination, vision, and care. Importantly, we feel these movements. We know we’ve started the car because we feel the key in the correct spot in the ignition. We know the shifter is in gear when we feel it drop into a settled state. We know we’re headed in the right direction because we feel the steering wheel passing through our fingers. We know gas is getting to the engine because we can feel the pedal under our feet. And for those with physical limitations and adaptive driving equipment, we know we’re on our way because we can feel control over the world passing by in front of us.

In addition to the felt sense of operating a car, driving also provides a sense of movement in times of stress. Exerting even a moderate force on the gas pedal can provide a thrill. Driving can help discharge pent up emotions. It can also be a simple and relaxing leisurely pastime. Destination-less driving in particular can provide a sense of freedom, and satisfy a driver’s sense of wonder, wanderlust, and exploration. Regardless of how often drivers go for rides in this way, they take comfort in knowing they can “hit the road” in a moment’s notice.

The feeling of sitting in the driver’s seat provides an unmatched sense of independence. Living in suburban or rural areas and not driving puts seniors at risk of isolation, which can lead to a host of emotional and physical problems. Social interaction is a basic necessity for our health and wellbeing; regardless of age, connecting with and relating to other humans is among our most basic set of needs. Many studies have been conducted regarding the effects isolation can have on seniors. According to studies referenced in the AARP Foundation’s Isolation Framework, isolation can lead to illness, loneliness, depression, suicidal ideation, and morbidity. Consequently, transportation as a means to engage in a social context is a basic need and is identified as an instrumental activity of daily living (IADLs). The social opportunities that readily available transportation provides is critically important in improving and maintaining health and wellbeing, and is put at risk when we rely on others for transportation.

The transportation options available to seniors, such as ride-sharing services (to be discussed in Part 2 of this series), help mitigate many of these risks. Their value is undeniable. But, do they help restore the sensed feelings of driving? Do they enable the senior to feel the movement of the key, the shifter, the steering wheel, the pedals? Do they put the senior in the driver’s seat? The transportation and senior services sector are both ripe with opportunity for innovators to explore ways to address these gaps. With today’s rapid technological advances, such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and even Google’s self-driving car, what if seniors could experience driving, without actually driving, and still reach their destination? Now that would be a trip worth riding home about.

About our guest blogger, Alex Iselin: As a design researcher, I apply a range of methods to identify, deconstruct, and strategically solve complex product design challenges. I ensure teams employ a human-centered and data-informed design process by gaining a deep understanding of users’ behaviors, goals, motivations, and needs. I study the needs of older adults and their families in addition to my role as a User Experience Researcher at Workiva. Please feel free to reach out via email or find me on LinkedIn.