When Mark Reed opened the front door Wednesday to Bill Crowley’s apartment in Petaluma’s Theatre District, he noticed a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon placed on a hallway table with the message, “Happy New Year, Mark.”
Crowley slowly and carefully sat on a chair next to the table and thanked Reed for the ride home from the adult day program at 25 Howard St. It’s only a few blocks away but Crowley, 77, couldn’t do it without Reed’s help.
“I think he’s a gift from heaven. He takes good care of us,” said Crowley, referring to Reed’s participation in the iRide Petaluma volunteer driver program run by Petaluma People Services Center.
The program, one of five in the county, provides free rides to people over age 60 who can no longer drive or have disabilities. And with the holidays over, the need for volunteers has become more urgent, as family members who may have visited left.
This week, Sonoma County human services officials put out a call for volunteers. In some cases, interaction with a volunteer driver is all the socialization some homebound seniors get.
“It gets pretty slow during holidays because family is around,” said Lauren Garibaldi, coordinator of volunteer driver program iRide Petaluma. “And then after the holidays seniors are by themselves again and the need definitely increases.”
Garibaldi said medical appointments are the most common trip for seniors using the service, while other destinations include trips to the gym, grocery store and “socialization” visits to places like the local senior center.
About 320 seniors are registered with the iRide Petaluma program. Between 30 to 40 seniors use it regularly.
The county’s driver programs use trained volunteers with their own cars and gas who can make a commitment to drive as much or as little as they want.
Reed, 59, a retired chemical engineer who worked 32 years for 3M Co. and now lives in Petaluma, has been an iRide volunteer for the past five years. The Petaluma retiree said he does it about three times a week, averaging three rides a day.
Reed also volunteers as a driver for Meals on Wheels and the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program, which shuttles cancer patients to and from treatment appointments.
“I do something every day, really,” said Reed.
Countywide, volunteer driver programs provide 10,000 rides annually to 530 seniors, said Diane Kaljian, director of the county’s Area Agency on Aging, which sponsors the programs. Kaljian, who is also assistant director of county human services, said about 100 drivers serve those seniors.
Isolation among seniors is one of the biggest risk factors for older adults, Kalkian said.
“It contributes to depression, which contributes to a lot of health and psychological issues that are detrimental to older adults,” she said. “Isolation makes people vulnerable to abuse and neglect. It may be that people neglect their own health or put their trust in other people that they shouldn’t.”
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a longtime advocate for seniors, said senior transportation is one of the county’s top issues as the population grows; there are now 125,000 residents over the age of 60.
“Transportation programs are critical because they get them to appointments, especially medical, and it keeps them socialized,” she said.
Volunteer driver Reed acknowledges that at some point he may also need the help of an iRide volunteer. Volunteering is a way to help in the meantime.