Low-cost ride service for seniors will expand in Hamilton County once more volunteers step up

·4 min read

Jun. 12—A popular ride-share program for seniors is looking to expand services to more areas of Hamilton County but needs volunteers, as many had to stop helping when the pandemic started.

MyRide TN Southeast provides volunteer-assisted transportation to essential appointments for people 60 and older who are able to walk independently or with a walker or cane. The service is available to residents of the Red Bank, Hixson and Middle Valley areas within the 37415, 37405, 37351 and 37343 ZIP codes and all of Bradley County.

Christin McWhorter, community outreach manager at the Southeast Tennessee Area Agency on Aging and Disability, said the agency will expand pick-up services to residents of the 37416, 37341 and 37363 ZIP codes, which encompass Ooltewah, Harrison and state Highway 58, once more drivers volunteer.

"The point when we can become operational in those areas is dependent upon when we have some volunteers who maybe live in those areas and are willing to drive their neighbors to essential appointments," McWhorter said.

Appointments can be to any essential destination within the county, such as a grocery store, pharmacy, doctor's office, salon or barber.

Although MyRide can't service people who are in wheelchairs, volunteers are able to help people with walkers and canes get from their houses and into or out of the cars.

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.

MyRide has continued to operate throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but the program lost about half of its volunteers, McWhorter said. At first, it wasn't a major issue, because most of the riders didn't want to leave their homes, many medical practices transitioned to virtual visits and MyRide scaled back to only taking riders to the most essential medical and pharmacy appointments.

MyRide also shifted to conducting "wellness calls" during which volunteers check in on riders to make sure they have what they need instead of driving them places.

McWhorter said the agency will continue conducting wellness calls as long as there are enough volunteers.

Now that vaccines are available and the pandemic is better controlled, the number of ride requests has returned to pre-pandemic levels.

"Our average age of our volunteers is 68, so they were concerned about being a vulnerable, at-risk population in terms of the negative effects of COVID," she said, adding that they were also concerned about potentially infecting the riders, whose average age is 78.

"We definitely are seeing an increase in requests, an increase in our riders being more comfortable getting back out, and also our volunteers being more comfortable getting back out and returning to appointments," McWhorter said. "We've had some return, but we definitely need volunteers."

My Ride coordinator Cindy Campbell said many of the riders who have recently been vaccinated stayed inside throughout the pandemic and are thrilled to be able to venture out again.

"I had one lady who was just absolutely giddy on the phone the day I told her that it's OK to go to the Walmart if she wanted to, that we would take her," Campbell said. "She was so excited she now schedules a weekly trip, because she said, 'I haven't been out of the house in a year.' So, the riders are enthusiastic — even to get out to go to the doctor."

Riders are not required to be vaccinated, but all riders are asked to wear masks and ride in the back seat if that's possible.

Volunteers only need to commit to one ride per month, which takes a maximum of three hours, and must be at least 21 years old, have a clean, well-maintained vehicle, complete a background check and attend a virtual training session. Training sessions are conducted once a month, with the next session from 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday, and the following training session opportunity on the third Thursday in July, McWhorter said.

Transportation is a major barrier to health and well-being for older adults in Southeast Tennessee. Even in areas with public transportation, seniors are often unable to access services due to cost or mobility issues, since most services won't assist users in getting to the pick-up point.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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