An expert with the Gerontological Society of America regards social isolation as a silent killer because it places people at higher risk for a variety of poor health outcomes. Lenard Kaye, who spoke before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging in April, also reported that more Americans are living in isolation than ever before.

“The prevalence may be as high as 43 percent among community dwelling older adults,” Kaye said.

Pat Meulemans (right) of Kaukauna picks up Rita Trader at her home in Menasha.

RSVP member, Pat Meulemans of Kaukauna (right), picks up Rita Trader at her home in Menasha.

But one area agency aims to help seniors remove the geographical barriers that can prevent them from getting to important destinations and visiting their friends, family and the greater community.

Making The Ride Happen (MRH) is a program that provides transportation to individuals who live in Outagamie, Calumet and Winnebago counties who are age 60 and older, or those with disabilities who are able to walk independently. The volunteer driver program is administered by Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan (LSS). The program allows folks to stay in their homes longer. The volunteer drivers for Outagamie and Calumet counties are members of the Retired and Senior Volunteer 55+ Program (RSVP), sponsored by the Volunteer Center of East Central Wisconsin. Volunteers drive seniors to a variety of important destinations, including medical appointments, grocery stores, pharmacies and banks, as well as visits with friends and family.

Mobility Manager Holly Keenan explained that it might be difficult for people enrolled in other subsidized county programs to cross county boundaries and move between communities. The program includes a call center, where staff members answer telephone calls from people asking about transportation options. Keenan said it’s their job to navigate a difficult transportation system.

“Our community has a part where three counties come together,” she said. “Each county has its own set of rules.”

MRH is a lifeline for many low-income seniors, Keenan explains, including a 71 year-old woman who needed to go to a hospital in another county for daily hyperbaric chamber treatments for a month. Her granddaughter works during the day, so MRH provided her with vital transportation. She also points out that a man with cognitive and physical disabilities in the Greenville-Hortonville area was fairly isolated until he started using the program. Today he travels once a week to visit his brother and to shop at Goodwill.

Allowing her clients to move between communities and across county lines is one of the greatest challenges of her job.

“If we didn’t have dedicated volunteers who were willing to drive across county lines or to the Fox Cities and other surrounding communities, it would be difficult and costly for folks to get to their destinations,” she said.

One of those volunteers is Pat Meulemans of Kaukauna. Her husband, John, inspired her to be a driver. He initially began to drive for the program until he became too busy with other volunteer activities. Pat began driving about five years ago and loves it. She recently drove a Menasha resident, Rita Trader, to an appointment.

“It makes me feel good to know that I can help people with their transportation needs despite their inability to get around,” she said.

As for Trader, she enjoys all the volunteers and appreciates the program.

“The best thing is the driver calling the night before so I know for sure that I’m going to get picked up,” she said. “And they’re always on time!”

Keenan said the driving schedule is very flexible. Volunteers don’t have to commit to a set schedule. Some drivers only want to drive in the summer. Others like to drive once a week, once a month or only on weekends. The agency even has new cloud-based scheduling software where drivers can access the schedule on the Web site and self-assign.

Volunteer drivers are assigned to clients according to their comfort level. If they would rather not handle a walker or cane, they would be assigned to clients who don’t need walking aids.

Since volunteers use their car, they must verify that they have the minimum required insurance by the state. Keenan has a list of insurance companies that cover volunteer drivers. The Volunteer Center also has an umbrella auto insurance policy for RSVP members.

Keenan views the program as a win-win for both the drivers and the clients:

“Making The Ride Happen keeps people out of isolation and volunteers are impacting people’s lives,” she said.

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