Melissa Abbott is 47, a wife and mother, a graduate school student, and she’s blind and permanently disabled.
Five years ago, a tumor robbed her of much of her eyesight and left her “chronically dizzy.” The balance problems have resulted in falls, causing painful injuries as well as concussions.
The Strafford resident said she is in a doctor’s office at least three times a week — sometimes in Somersworth, sometimes in Portsmouth, and sometimes in Concord. Getting to these appointments meant her self-employed husband would lose out on business or her daughter, who is a teacher, would need to take time out of work.
But Abbott said she is now “on the road to recovery” with help she’s received from Ready Rides, a volunteer network of drivers that takes people to and from their medical appointments at no charge. It’s one of several volunteer transportation programs that have popped up around the state to help the elderly and disabled in rural areas get rides to the medical care they need.
“They just to do it give back to the community, but they hope it’s there when they need it,” said Ready Rides coordinator Meri Schmalz, adding: “They are angels.”
The drivers receive a mileage reimbursement and gratitude in return.
Lionel “Dag” Saunders of Northwood was at a craft fair in 2016 when he met Schmalz and signed on to be a volunteer driver. He’s made over 200 drives, taking people to appointments as far away as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon — 87 miles each way from Northwood.
“There’s this one lady who grabs my hand and kisses it,” the 79-year-old said. “It makes you feel good and you’re doing good for the community.”The need
Since Ready Rides started service in 2013, the number of rides has climbed from 115 to more than 2,400 rides, clocking in at 32,000 miles in 2016. In 2017, the group is at almost 45,000 miles driven by 38 drivers for 275 riders.
It’s also expanded its base to serve nine towns — Barrington, Durham, Nottingham, Newfields, Lee, Newmarket, Northwood, Madbury and Strafford. Each town provides some funding, Schmalz said.
“New Hampshire is so rural,” Schmalz said. It’s so beautiful, but there’s no transportation.”
A 2005 study of New Hampshire views on public transportation found that 62,000 residents missed a medical appointment because they had no ride, with 11,000 of this group reporting missing four or more appointments in one year’s time. While the survey is 12 years old, the percentage of those 65 and older has grown from 12 percent of the state’s population to 16 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2025, that demographic is expected to climb to 25 percent of the state’s population.The volunteers
Saunders checks the online sign-up every day to see when rides are needed. He said he is usually out on the roads Tuesday through Friday — some weeks less and some more. He said the job is part-time driver, full-time listener.
“Everyone has got a story to tell,” he said. “And many of them just appreciate you listening.”
When he’s done, he logs the rides online and submits for a reimbursement of 35 cents per mile. He said the reimbursement does not cover the wear and tear on his car, just the cost of gas.
“I’m not a great fan of driving, but I get a lot of satisfaction from giving the rides,” he said.
“I’m paying if forward. I may need it myself sometime.”
Schmalz said drivers must provide their own insurance, but Ready Rides does have its own policy. She requires every volunteer to go through an orientation, a background check, and take a defensive driving course every three years. The riders
Saunders said most of the riders are women and most are in their 80s or older. The group limits rides to those 55 and older. If someone is younger and is unable to drive, the group will make an exception, as they have with Abbott.
The riders are asked to provide one week’s notice to request a ride, but Schmalz said no one can predict what medical issue may arise, so Ready Rides tries to be accommodating as possible. She said 90 percent of all ride needs are met.
“We never guarantee rides, but we do our best,” Schmalz said. “Our volunteers are angels and will usually jump in to help out.”
Riders must provide emergency contacts.
The rides are limited to medical appointments but the group has recently added pharmacy trips to pick up medication. Schmalz said they will also provide rides to support groups and for those seeking treatment for substance abuse, such as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
She hopes that one day the group could expand its services to provide rides to senior centers or libraries to help these home-bound neighbors.
“It’s so good for their wellbeing to be able to go a library or a senior center,” she said. “It’s important to have that socialization.”
Saunders said he has provided rides to people who have no other contact with the outside world than their drivers or doctors.
“One gentlemen apologized for talking too much,” Saunders said. “He said ‘I don’t have visitors, and I like to talk and you’re the only person I see.’”Growing need
Schmalz said the needs are definitely growing. Their federal funding has been capped, and they rely on subsidies from the communities they serve and donations. She said it would help if the state could jump in and help organizations like hers. If not with money, then maybe vehicles so volunteers are not putting the miles and wear and tear on their cars.
Schmalz’s greatest concern for the future is what will happen when the drivers become the riders and who is going to be there for them.
“I’m always looking for new volunteers,” she said. “It’s a constant battle.” .Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday News report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire’s aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Gretchen Grosky would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at email@example.com or (603) 206-7739. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging. This series is funded through a grant from the Endowment for Health.