Yvonne DeMatteo will tell you she's got the greatest job in the world. So you might be surprised to hear she spends most of her workday in traffic. But she loves every minute.
DeMatteo, 46, is a licensed driver for Dial-A-Ride for the Greater New Haven Transit District (GNHTD), a local- and state-subsidized program that gives people who are 60-plus or disabled access to on-demand, low-cost, door-to-door transportation provided by trained and licensed bus drivers. During her eight-hour shift, she drives at least 125 miles and may pick up between 15 and 20 clients, taking them shopping, to doctor's appointments or to visit friends.
See also: Transportation options for non-drivers.
"I'm giving people back their independence," she said proudly. "I give them a chance to get out of the house and do the things they want to do. Without this, so many people would have no choice but to stay home alone."
She's right, said Claudio Gualtieri, AARP Connecticut senior program specialist for public affairs. Without any widespread public transportation, older people depend heavily on rides from services like Dial-A-Ride, and most municipalities have at least some program in place to help them get to the places they need to be.
AARP was instrumental in getting public funding for these programs. In 2006, the legislature allocated $5 million to municipalities for transportation for older people and people with disabilities, but the towns had to provide matching funds. Of the state's 186 towns, 125 decided to participate. Some metropolitan areas, like New Haven, pooled their resources with surrounding towns and shared buses and drivers, said Donna Carter, executive director of the GNHTD. Others used the money to augment their existing transportation services.
Some ride services allow only trips to senior centers, grocery store and medical appointments, while others provide rides to just about anywhere. In New Haven, for instance, older people pay $2.50 per ride and can go wherever they wish within their 12-town region. In Guilford, three vans are available four days a week to take people shopping and to medical appointments in town, and a contribution is voluntary.
In Beacon Falls, population 5,600, Bernadette Dionne, 71, president of the senior center and a retired bus driver, is paid to provide free rides in the town-owned van. The program was recently cut from five days to four because of costs.
In West Hartford, Dial-A-Ride services are farmed out to a private company that provides the drivers and maintenance, while the town owns the vehicles. Participants pay a flat rate annually for the service and can use it to go to medical appointments, grocery shopping or the senior center.
Statewide, these programs are facing cutbacks. The General Assembly cut the state's contribution from $4 million to $3 million for the coming fiscal year.
If more than 125 towns choose to participate, the state money will be further diluted, which could mean more cutbacks to the existing programs.
State Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, co-chair of the Aging Committee, calls these programs "critically important" for the state's older people.
"This is a wonderful program, and without it, people get totally isolated," she said. "We have to fight to keep it in the budget at a time when we're having a terrible time in Connecticut, and everybody has to make do with less."
AARP will work with legislators to restore funding for the Dial-A-Ride program in the future and continue to enhance transportation options for older people and those with disabilities who no longer drive, said Jennifer Millea, AARP Connecticut associate state director-communications. To find out how you can help,contact the AARP Connecticut office toll-free at 1-866-295-7279 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Sandi Kahn Shelton is a freelance writer and author based in Guilford, Conn.