The grey bus gap

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Seniors struggle to get where they need to go

Two St. Albert seniors hope the city’s Handibus service can be expanded to help more seniors get where they need to go.

Chateau Mission Court residents Don Hiron and Donna Brown spoke to the Gazette this week about a seniors’ transportation gap in St. Albert.

“Loneliness is becoming a serious disease for seniors,” Hiron said, with the Alberta Retired Teachers’ Association linking it to increased risk of depression, heart disease, and cognitive decline. Isolation can be a big problem in retirement homes, as many seniors have nothing to do there but sit alone in their rooms.

“People that don’t drive and don’t get out that come here go downhill very quickly,” he said, as there are few opportunities to socialize in a seniors home.

While their facility has a private bus that can take groups on trips, residents often struggle to find volunteers to drive it, Hiron said. St. Albert Transit will take you to some locations, but its stops are often far from your destination.

Brown recalled how one group from their home once took St. Albert Transit to the Winspear Centre in Edmonton. It was -20 C, and the bus let them off six blocks away.

“Transit is not senior friendly, period,” she said.

Hiron said he can get door-to-door transit service through Handibus, but is often the only person on the bus.

“It makes more sense to take a group.”

He and Brown hoped the city would let seniors use the Handibus as a group for social outings.

“There’s got to be some way to get groups so they can go bowling or go to the theatre or whatever,” Hiron said.

The solution is money

Seniors are the fastest-growing part of St. Albert’s population, suggests the city’s 2016 census, with people 65 or older now making up about 16 per cent of the population – roughly twice what they did in 2000.

Social isolation is a definite issue for seniors, many of whom may not have the cash available to hire a cab, said Bonnie Dobbs, a professor of family medicine with the University of Alberta’s Medically At-Risk Driver Centre. Volunteer transport services often struggle to find funds or drivers, while Handibus-like programs often lack capacity for social visits.

The Handibus is designed to carry people in wheelchairs and isn’t meant for the general population, said St. Albert Transit director Kevin Bamber. Riders must register to use it, and need a reference from their doctor to show they are physically or cognitively unable to use a regular bus.

Bamber said the city would have to see a demonstrated need to expand the Handibus to non-registered seniors, and he’s not currently getting a lot of calls from groups of seniors looking to use it. The bus will take groups on trips if everyone in the group is registered to ride, and often takes passengers on non-medically related trips.

Seniors who want to ride as a group can also charter a St. Albert Transit bus for about $130 an hour, or about $13 per person for a two-hour, 20-person round trip, Bamber said. Chartered buses also offer door-to-door service.

Dobbs said the best way to ensure seniors have transportation is for a community to make it a dedicated line item in their budget – something many Alberta communities are now doing. St. Albert seniors homes could also pool their resources to share buses and drivers.

Coun. Wes Brodhead said it’s hard to say if council would support expanding the Handibus program for seniors without seeing the cost, adding that he didn’t see any harm in investigating the idea.

“If we want to provide that level of service, are the citizens of St. Albert willing to pay?”

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.