It’s never been easier to get around. You don’t even need to call a taxi anymore; just take out your smartphone, click on an app and minutes later, your ride is there.
Sadly, though, this mobility revolution spurred by the likes of Uber and Lyft had largely bypassed those who probably need it most—older people who can’t drive or don’t have a car. The problem is that many don’t have a smartphone, either, or if they do, are uncomfortable with using mobile apps.
The result is that far too often the elderly miss or delay appointments with doctors or at hospitals—research suggests this happens millions of times a year. It also makes them more likely to become isolated from friends and family, a condition found to increase their risk of mortality.
Now, however, there are promising signs that ride-hailing services are sharpening their focus on the over-65 market—a demographic expected to comprise more than 20 percent of the U.S, population by 2040.
Lyft, the San Francisco-based transportation network launched four years ago, made a big splash last month with two moves. First, it announced a partnership with CareLinx, a network of about 170,000 caregivers around the country. Then, just before Christmas, it said it will begin providing non-emergency transportation for patients of Ascension, the largest non-profit health care system in the U.S., with 2,500 care facilities, including 141 hospitals.
The collaboration with CareLinx adds another dimension to Lyft’s emerging strategy of helping older people stay mobile, according to Dan Trigub, who oversees the company’s health care partnerships. It goes beyond conventional curb-to-curb service, since caregivers will be along for the ride. “It’s really a door-through-door solution,” he notes. “Now you will have a licensed caregiver in the car who can help the senior get into the doctor’s office or the pharmacy to do grocery shopping with them.”
The key component is a web-based tool called Concierge that allows caregivers or family members to request Lyft rides for older adults through the CareLinx app they’re already using. “In less than 10 seconds, a person can schedule a ride on behalf of somebody,” says Trigub. “They enter the pickup and drop-off locations and they can schedule up to a week in advance or in real time. Then they have access to our fleet of vehicles in that area.”
Uber likewise has been exploring how it can better connect with the elder market, dating back to a pilot program it launched with Gainesville, Florida more than a year ago. Called Freedom in Motion, it’s been an attempt by the city to find a more efficient way to transport people to and from its senior centers. Since then, Uber has taken a number of different approaches—from doing tutorials with AARP at senior centers in Florida on how the Uber app works, to developing a service called RideWith24, in conjunction with California-based 24Hr HomeCare, which needed to address the problem of its patients often having to wait a long time for a ride home from the hospital.
Uber also is now working with MedStar Health, a non-profit health care system in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. “MedStar actually reached out to us,” explains Lindsay Elin, Uber’s Head of Community Engagement. “They saw through their own research that the cost of missed appointments is ridiculously high. They were looking to drive down their own costs, and transportation was a big hurdle.”
When MedStar patients make appointments, they can request ride service, which is then scheduled through a dashboard called UberCentral. “The people at MedStar can manage the rides,” she says. “They can track the patients’ trips and know when they arrive.”
It’s also now possible, through a program call UberFamily, for people to create multi-person profiles on their Uber app, and then schedule rides on behalf of family members.
Why mobility matters
Elin knows from her own experience the role transportation can play in an older person’s life. “My grandparents remained in their hometown of Warrenton, Missouri, while my mother, their only child, lived 2,000 miles away,” she says. “Much of our family conversation was around how do we make sure that grandma and grandpa are making it to their doctor appointments, and that they’re getting out of their house and not living in isolation.”
Lyft’s Trigub has similar memories of how much a lack of mobility can diminish an older person’s life. He had been his grandmother’s caregiver when she was living alone in an apartment in New York. “She was an immigrant, didn’t know how to use a cell phone, couldn’t call anybody to get her a taxi. The only time she would leave the apartment was when the family would visit her.”
That motivated him to launch a startup called Open Placement, which he described as “the equivalent of hotels.com for senior care.” It offers an online tool that helps hospital case managers find skilled nursing care for patients recovering from surgery or other treatments, a process that usually involves making a flurry of phone calls.
But he moved to Lyft last year, attracted by its commitment to developing partnerships with companies serving older adults. That really began a year ago when it started working with the National Medtrans Network in New York. Soon, according to Lyft, it was providing 2,500 non-emergency rides a week. Subsequent partnerships were forged with companies like GreatCall—enabling people to schedule Lyft service through its seniors-friendly phone called Jitterbug—and Brookdale Senior Living, one of the larger operators of elder living facilities in the U.S.
For the most part, Trigub notes, communities for older adults have relied on a simple, if largely inefficient, approach to providing transportation for their residents. “Maybe you have 300 people in an independent living community with one shuttle bus for all of them, taking people around town all day,” he says. “They have to book their rides days and maybe weeks in advance. Then, they may have to end up waiting outside a long time for the bus to get there.”
He points out that using a ride-hailing service gives riders much more flexibility and allows a community’s staff to keep better track of their residents than if they used taxis. It also means the riders don’t need to take out cash to pay the fare, a situation that can cause them to feel more vulnerable.
Lyft is currently running pilot programs with senior living facilities in several different markets. It will evaluate results over the next three to six months, including cost savings for its partners, but also how residents use the service and if they’re satisfied customers.
For Trigub, there’s little doubt about the need in America’s aging population that ride services can fulfill. “For seniors who are 65 or older and no longer drive,” he says, “data shows that 15 percent make fewer trips to the doctor, 59 percent take fewer trips to shop or eat out and 55 percent take fewer trips to visit friends and family.”
Elin, at Uber, sees the same potential role. “We are absolutely scaling up our efforts around this in 2017. We certainly see a great need and have had a tremendous response so far,” she says.
“I was at a health conference a few weeks ago and the interest was clearly there. Now Lyft and Uber and other ride services are seen as part of the transportation solution.”
This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and AARP.