Westmoreland County transit system to be tested as baby boomers become seniors

Updated 5 hours ago

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part package as part of the Tribune-Review’s look at the impact of baby boomers as they retire and swell the region’s aging population. Sunday’s story examined the need for more health care professionals as the industry faces increased need and retirements.

It’s roughly a quarter-mile walk from the Laurel Highlands Village senior home to the Excela Health office down Weldon Street, past a park and the Latrobe Area Historical Society.

But residents worry their days of easily getting to and from Chestnut Ridge — and other nearby Excela-affiliated offices — could soon end. It’s a troubling prospect that underlines how transportation poses a particular challenge for seniors, one issue in a sea of potential problems as baby boomers continue to age into retirement.

This fall, Excela plans to open a three-story, $40 million outpatient care center on Route 30 in Unity, about 3 miles from downtown Latrobe.

For Laurel Highlands Village seniors, 3 miles is too far to walk. Many don’t drive. Family members often don’t live nearby. And public transportation is, at best, difficult to navigate.

Excela hasn’t identified which doctors will relocate to the Route 30 center. So Mary Kozenko, 78, and her neighbors wait and worry about what should be one of the easiest aspects of health care — getting to and from doctors’ offices.

“There are a lot (of seniors) in here that go up to Excela on Weldon Street,” Kozenko said. “And if they don’t let anybody know whether that’s moving, they’ll be left hanging.”

Excela Square at Latrobe is based on a care delivery model that centralizes outpatient services so people see multiple doctors, undergo tests, even access speech or physical therapy, in one place.

Excela officials said they’ve heard no complaints about the location. Westmoreland Transit Authority is open to expanding bus service to the new center and to “what can be done in the short-term when the facility opens,” Executive Director Alan Blahovec said.

Arranging rides

The vast majority of Americans stay put after age 55, with only about 5 percent changing residences, according to a Transportation for America report on mobility and the baby boom generation.

As a result, millions of Americans are aging in place, creating what some researchers call naturally occurring retirement communities. These can pose problems because they were not designed for seniors to access transportation and social service providers, the report notes.

Seniors living in places like Laurel Highlands Village are relatively lucky when it comes to transportation access, said Michelle Schurick, the facility’s service coordinator. She helps arrange transportation for residents, using fixed-route buses; GO Westmoreland, the authority’s dial-a-ride service; and Laurel Area Faith in Action volunteer rides drivers. Seniors who live at home and don’t have someone to help coordinate service offerings, especially in rural communities, generally have fewer options, she said.

Rick Koche lives in the Loyalhanna Apartments public housing complex, not far from Laurel Highlands Village. Transportation to and from medical appointments already poses a problem for him.

Koche, 56, said he doesn’t drive. If he’s lucky, he can get a ride from his sister — when she’s in town. If not, he relies on rides from Faith Forward Ministries, a nonprofit human services organization.

Koche goes to a neurologist in Greensburg to receive treatments related to vertebrae fractures. He expects such trips, which occur about every other month, will become more frequent as he ages.

“Since I turned 50, everything has been downhill,” Koche said. “I’ll probably end up living in a personal care home someday. I hate to say it.”

Combining efforts

The report by Transportation for America provided recommendations for improving senior transportation services, such as:

• Coordinating federal, state and local transportation programs to eliminate overlapping, duplicative and inefficient operations.

• Using “mobility management” organizations that help communities develop coordinated transportation polices, plans and practices.

• Developing community-based transportation services, such as volunteer programs, and shuttles sponsored by shopping centers or medical facilities.

A senior transportation program developed in Riverside, Calif., in 1993 provides one example of an innovative, community-based option.

The Transportation Reimbursement and Information Program, or TRIP, allows riders to recruit drivers, usually friends or neighbors, who are reimbursed for mileage.

A mix of federal grants and local taxes pays for the reimbursements.

The program has been replicated in more than 30 communities. Rich Smith, TRIP director and general manager, said it’s a cost-effective way to help seniors get around.

“It also connects people in the community to each other, many of whom have lost connections because of aging, disease or a lost spouse, things like that,” he said.

Better options

The Westmoreland Transit Authority often hears from social services agencies that all people — not just the elderly — need better transportation options, Blahovec said.

That message has been expressed at public forums for “Reimagining Our Westmoreland,” a planning project community leaders are using to combat demographic changes and attract more diversity and prosperity, he said.

The transit authority’s most prominent challenge remains frequency. Blahovec said. The agency serves a population that is widely dispersed and can’t afford to run buses one after another. People often wait hours for fixed-route buses and dial-a-ride service.

The authority hopes to complete a “transit development plan” by fall, Blahovec said.

Jack Overdorff, 86, often rides the Westmoreland Transit Authority’s fixed-route buses. He still drives, but he takes the bus when he can. He rides for free, thanks to state lottery proceeds subsidizing bus services for seniors.

As a public transit user in a rural community, Overdorff is lucky. There’s a bus stop across the road from the Mt. Pleasant home he and his wife built in 1957. He plans to stay.

“I own it,” he said. “I’d have to pay rent somewhere else.”

Michael Walton is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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