During these difficult times, with so many older adults feeling isolated and alone, what can anyone do to help? “You have to do something for your mental health,” said 80-year-old Pat Keane of Bedford Hills, as she spoke with The Record-Review.
Ms. Keane was speaking as someone who knows. But she wasn’t speaking as someone who needs or receives assistance; she was speaking as a volunteer who provides it. She is one of the drivers for RideConnect, a countywide volunteer program run by Family Services of Westchester in Katonah.
RideConnect matches volunteers with older adults who are no longer driving. Rides are provided at no cost. Its original mission was to help older adults stay active, engaged and independent by helping them get to where they needed to go, whether it was a doctor's appointment or a trip to the hair salon. That changed after the arrival of COVID-19, but the organization is hoping to return to some degree of normalcy in the not-too-distant future.
“I’ve been doing it for almost five years,” said Ms. Keane. “It’s been so good in so many ways. It’s so well done. One very fine feature is that you don’t have to sign up to do a ride on a regular basis; you don’t have to commit to do a ride the same time every day. You look online and pick. That would be attractive to anyone who is interested in volunteering.”
“COVID changed things,” said Karen Ganis, director of the program. “Our older adult neighbors wanted to stay home as much as possible, so our volunteers pivoted to offer to shop for them and drop off their groceries or medications.”
That led to a new category of volunteers: those who strictly pick up and drop off groceries. Since they do not have passengers in their cars, they are not subject to as high a level of vetting; the only requirements are that they be over 18, with a valid driver’s license.
Driving volunteers, on the other hand, requires a thorough vetting process including an interview, a DMV check, a criminal background check and a reference check.
Ms. Ganis said a few months ago RideConnect officials made the decision to start driving people again, though for now, the service is limited to trips to and from medical appointments. “But hopefully soon we’ll be able to resume driving seniors to mahjong and other fun stuff too,” she said.
Even with limiting the service to medical appointments, the demand has started to return — which leads to a problem.
“We have about 300 driving volunteers to date,” said Ms. Ganis, “but because of COVID we don’t have them all back yet.” However, demand for the program is coming back—and, in fact, is even higher because of the many things that were put on pause.”
With so many clients having put off their regular medical appointments, there is a backlog of trips they need to take. Deb Casill, RideConnect’s outreach coordinator, said the demand for medical rides is the immediate challenge. “Sixty-five percent of our demand is back, but 65% of our volunteers are not back,” she said. “Most of the drop is because they’re waiting to get vaccinated, or have family members who are compromised.” She said volunteers who returned are stepping up and doing even more. And, she emphasized, none has said they won’t come back.
Ms. Keane said she didn’t drive any passengers from March, when the regular ride program shut down, until last fall. “I missed doing it,” she said. Once bringing people to medical appointments resumed, she was eager to get back into it. “I’ve felt completely comfortable, with all the precautions,” she said. She and the passengers all must wear masks and must sit physically distanced from the driver, in the back seat of the driver’s car on the passenger side. As a result, there is no need for her to come in close physical contact with anyone.
RideConnect clients “need to be able to get in and out of car on their own,” she noted, “and need to be able to fold a walker on their own, if they have one.”
Michael Berardino of Katonah spent years as a RideConnect driver. “I think it’s wonderful,” he said of the volunteer program. He shared fond memories of driving a heart surgeon from Yorktown to his synagogue in Bedford. “I got to know him and the rabbi,” he said. “I looked forward to it.”
He, too, praised the program’s flexibility. “It’s not a job; you can pick and choose what you want to do.” Overall, he said, “It was fulfilling and time well spent. I urge others to do it.”
Ms. Ganis explained that RideConnect was started about 10 years age to serve residents over 60 who needed help getting around in the northeast part of the county. She noted that from Armonk north, there are few public transportation options other than Metro-North.
The program proved to be enormously successful and expanded to serve the county north of Interstate 287. “We now serve all of Westchester and some neighboring border communities,” she said.
During RideConnect’s first full year, there were 993 rides and referrals; in 2020, that grew to over 20,000.
There are other county and local ride programs, noted Ms. Ganis. “We work collaboratively with all the other programs,” she said. “We have a database of all the providers in the county. Every program has its own rules, and we are not all things to all people either. A lot of the programs try to restrict it to medical appointments; since COVID, we do, too. They also limit times, and don’t do evenings and weekends. We’re a little more flexible that way.”
Unlike some other services, RideConnect requires that rides are requested at least seven days in advance. And, echoing Mr. Berardino, she said volunteers can go online to review all current ride requests and they can accept as few or as many as they wish. “If you can give us one ride a month, fantastic,” she said, adding, “every ride is one less person I said ‘no’ to.” Some drivers provide only a few rides a year, while one volunteer racked up 13,000 miles just in 2020.
She said the ease, convenience, and sense of fulfillment from servicing residents leads many volunteers to develop a long-term commitment to RideConnect.
“I’ll do this as long as I can,” noted Ms. Keane. “It’s a need and you notice people are lonely; even if they live with someone else, they love to talk to someone. It’s a very good thing, there’s definitely a need for it. Because around here, it’s really hard to live without care.”
“Whenever I pick somebody up,” said Ms. Casill, “every single time I have such an enjoyable conversation. I feel so appreciated.”
For more information, visit RideConnect’s website at rideconnectwestchester.org or call 242-7433