Building better age-friendly communities focus of UMSL conference

by | Aug 25, 2015

More than 100 people attended the "Transportation in St. Louis County" conference held earlier this month at UMSL.
Audience at "Transportation in St. Louis County" conference

More than 100 people attended the “Transportation in St. Louis County” conference held earlier this month at UMSL. The conference focused on building strong age-friendly communities. (Photo by August Jennewein)

After a hard fall in 2006, Tom Meuser, director of the Gerontology Graduate Program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, had to give up his car keys.

“I had a C2 fracture and had to stop driving for three months while my neck healed,” he said. “I wore a collar and couldn’t turn my neck. It was not pleasant. I had to make trade-offs between what I wanted to do and what I needed to do. I was beholden to others for rides, and it’s hard to be taken care of when you’re usually the caretaker.”

UMSL's Tom Meuser

Tom Meuser, director of the Gerontology Graduate Program at UMSL (Photo by August Jennewein)

Meuser’s experience parallels the difficulties aging citizens face as they struggle with changes in vision, attention, reflexes and range of motion. The population of elder citizens will rise steadily over the next 30 years in what gerontology experts describe as an “aging tsunami.” Building better age-friendly communities and helping elder citizens transition to lifestyles without driving are imminent societal concerns.

In an effort to foster stronger relationships between local eldercare organizations and rideshare services, Meuser organized the “Transportation in St. Louis County: Options & Priorities for an Age Friendly Community” conference. St. Louis County Older Residents Program, Shepherd’s Center,, Mid East Area Agency on Aging and ITN St. Charles all attended and offered further information on their community outreach efforts. Katherine Freund served as keynote speaker for the event on Aug. 7.

Freund is the founder and president of ITNAmerica, a nationwide nonprofit transportation service formed after an 84-year-old driver ran over her 3-year-old. Her son survived, and after the ordeal, Freund sought to help functionally impaired individuals transition out of driving.

“We always hear that older people don’t want to stop driving,” she said. “I’ve heard something quite different – older people continue driving because they need to.”

Whereas the majority of rideshare services prioritize travel for medical needs and operate during limited hours, ITNAmerica offers rides 24 hours a day and strives to promote social engagement. Not only can passengers take trips to the doctor for a modest fare, they are encouraged to visit friends, see movies and even date.

One particular ITNAmerica passenger once asked Freund, “Who wants his daughter driving him on a date?”

ITNAmerica’s service statistics reveal that beauty parlor appointments are one of the most requested trips. This proves a sense of style is important at any age. And it is this genuine sense of dignifying and preserving the identities of aging citizens that motivates UMSL gerontology graduate student Nick Schmidt.

“As a society, we want our older adults to remain active,” he said, “Whether that activity encompasses what they need to do, such as working and grocery shopping, or what they want to do, such as volunteering or visiting friends. I can wake up and drive anywhere any day, and that is a huge factor in my independence and social engagement.”

During her presentation, Freund shared highlights of the ITN Storybook Tour. The 60-day Storybook Tour across the United States involved Freund interviewing aging citizens about how access to transportation or the lack thereof has changed their lives or the lives of someone they know or love.

“When I ask people these questions, I find no one has asked them before,” she said. “There is a process that happens when they articulate their emotional experience. I have heard the most amazing stories, seen grown men cry. The honesty and openness is powerfully moving.”

Following his neck fracture, loss of mobility and recovery, Meuser hoped shared experiences could move society to action. Promoting positive mobility in aging and disability are priorities in his teaching, research and community service roles through UMSL.

He is committed to projects that normalize the driving transition when aging and empower older adults to remain active and engaged citizens. Even in conducting studies to understand the grief and loss aspects of giving up the keys, Meuser remained focused on the positive.

“It’s not about getting impaired drivers off the road. It’s about a good quality of life for everyone.”

Visit the St. Louis County website to learn more about the county’s efforts to be more age friendly in the future. Call the United Way’s 2-1-1 social services line to learn about non-driving transportation options in our region.

The UMSL Experience

Ron Austin

Ron Austin