When Jack Rhodes pulled up to the affordable housing complex where 85-year-old Ellie Jaquish lives, he could have been driving a stretch limousine. The iRIDE Petaluma volunteer was behind the wheel of his 2013 Honda Accord, but Jaquish felt like royalty.
She’s among the senior citizens receiving free door-to-door rides through the volunteer iRIDE program sponsored by the nonprofit Petaluma People Services Center, in collaboration with the Petaluma Senior Center.
Some clients are on limited incomes; many need the additional assistance other transportation services can’t provide.
Jaquish was using a walker and carrying a sports bag on a recent morning as she waited outside her apartment for Rhodes, 72, who averages 15 to 20 hours weekly as a volunteer driver. He’s logged some 4,500 miles since beginning with iRIDE in March.
Rhodes greeted Jaquish, helped her to the front passenger seat of his sedan and placed her belongings in his trunk. The two made the 10-minute drive to a local gym, where Jaquish exercises in a heated, indoor swimming pool, something that’s been critical to her success losing weight and dropping several dress sizes.
She is grateful to Rhodes and the other volunteer drivers who bring her back and forth to the gym three days a week, using their own vehicles and gasoline without reimbursement.
“I just don’t know what I’d do without them. They are wonderful,” said Jaquish, who gave up driving in her late 70s, after a frightening incident when her foot went numb and slipped off the brake.
“I just felt like Jell-O. I took the car home and said I can’t drive anymore,” she recalled.
Jaquish can’t afford a taxi several times a week, doesn’t have friends or relatives able to drive her often and finds it difficult to negotiate other transportation options.
Lauren Garibaldi, the iRIDE Petaluma coordinator and its only paid staff, said volunteer drivers provide more than just transportation. As an integral part of the Petaluma People Services Center program, they are helping elderly clients “age in place” by assuring they keep medical appointments, get groceries and household supplies, and stay engaged in their community.
Some, like one 100-year-old client, schedule rides to the local senior center to meet friends and participate in activities. A pair of elderly men developed a friendship after riding together a few times a week to a Petaluma program for frail seniors. A visually impaired woman in her 80s meets with friends in Marin County for bowling after getting a ride to the local SMART train station.
Drivers get to know their frequent riders and develop bonds, too. Volunteers contact Garibaldi if they suspect changes in health or welfare so she can investigate and contact a family member or caseworker, if necessary.
“We’re their eyes, too,” said Garibaldi, 65.
The program currently has 315 registered clients and 16 volunteer drivers, most drivers “young seniors themselves who have time and want to help,” Garibaldi said. On average, about 300 rides are provided within the Petaluma area each month.
All iRIDE Petaluma clients must be local residents at least 60 years old and ambulatory; the majority use canes or walkers or have difficulty negotiating stairs. The program also helps younger people with disabilities, typically those in their 50s.