LIBERAL — A white Dodge Caravan pulls up in front of the Dillons grocery store in Liberal, Kansas, and Floyd Coleman steps out to help his next passenger into the minivan. Coleman, a 63-year-old retired truck driver, shuttles people around town for Liberal’s senior center. He has a few pickups and drop-offs throughout the day and can drive senior center patrons anywhere within the city limits for free.
City Bus, the public transit system in Liberal, runs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. And although seniors qualify for reduced fares, the stops are sometimes few and far between.
On this hot July day, Coleman walks over to Mark Daldegan, 64, who is waiting on a bench outside Dillons. “You ready to go?”
“Yeah,” Daldegan responds. Coleman walks Daldegan to the car and helps him get in. He then folds Daldegan’s walker and stows it in the trunk before driving him a few miles to his home in south Liberal.
Because of the distance between his home and the closest bus stop, Daldegan — and many other seniors with mobility issues — rely on Coleman and the services the center provides.
“The ones I pick up are generally just trying to get to doctor appointments, grocery stores and stuff like that that they’re no longer able to get to,” Coleman said.
Liberal is in Seward County and more than 10% of its 20,000 residents are over the age of 65. Although some cities in southwest Kansas like Liberal have senior centers equipped to help clients get around, group transportation isn’t always available in smaller towns.
The problem of unreliable transportation for seniors occurs in town after town, not just in Kansas but across rural America.
More than 46 million Americans live in rural areas, and that population is older and sicker than urban populations. According to a recent CDC report, people in rural communities are at higher risk of death from accidents and injuries because of the distance to emergency care and health specialists.
Considering that 1 in 5 Americans will be over the age of 65 by 2030, the transportation problems that older rural Kansans face portend a looming shortage of mobility options for seniors who want to age in place. That means a growing number of people who will have more trouble shopping for groceries, visiting family and getting to medical care.
No public transportation here
More than 140 miles northwest of Liberal, Tribune faces a more extreme challenge of mobilizing seniors. Here in Greeley County, the state’s least populated, 1 in 5 people already are over 65 years old.
“Transportation around here is very hard because if you can’t drive and you don’t have a vehicle, you can’t go nowhere,” said Dave Tarman, 73, a regular at the Melven O. Kuder Senior Center in Tribune, population around 800. “There is no public transportation here.
“We have volunteers around the county that will drive somebody to Garden City if they have a doctor’s appointment. But sometimes they can’t find that.”
And if they can’t get to the closest biggest city? “They don’t get to go to the doctor,” Tarman said.
Chelsey Cavenee, director of the senior center in Tribune, said she’s been trying to come up with a solution to this regional problem for years.
“We can’t even call a neighboring town,” Cavenee said. “In fact, I’ve tried calling several neighboring towns to see if they have a route that they’d be willing to set up to come and pick up people who need rides to doctors. And most of them all tell me that they don’t go outside of their county.”
Cavenee said that although the center has a small bus it shares with a nursing home, it doesn’t have the resources to shuttle seniors around daily with it.
“It’s the only form of ‘public transportation’ we have in the community,” she said. “However, we have no dispatching system. We have no on-call number. We have no scheduling to reserve a ride or anything like that.
“And quite honestly, it’s not economical to use for a single person. We figure it gets about seven or eight miles to the gallon.”
The center has one employee, Cavenee, and doesn’t have the funds to hire someone to transport patrons regularly, let alone cover the cost of fuel and maintenance involved in running a shuttle daily.
“I’m usually on base here at the senior center to take care of the people that come here,” Cavenee said. “We use it (the bus) for our scheduled trips. But if it’s a patient that the clinic has referred to a doctor, that doesn’t quite fall under my umbrella, and I feel bad about that.”
Cavenee even tried signing up to be an Uber driver.
“This was a couple of years ago, but basically they said there was not enough need in your area, which I kind of laughed at because there is certainly a need in our area,” she said.
A representative of Uber said that providing reliable service in rural counties is difficult given the small populations and large distances between towns.
Can’t get to treatment
Mary Kinlund is 94 and was driving until her doctor told her last year that, given her eyesight, she shouldn’t be on the road. She’s fortunate to have a daughter who can drive her to doctor appointments outside of Greeley County.
Moving closer to her doctor is something she hopes she never has to consider.
“This is where my friends are,” Kinlund said. “I wouldn’t want to live any place else. Tribune’s home now.”
But not everyone has someone.
About a dozen miles from Tribune’s city center, a forgotten clothesline creaks in the wind outside Waive Winter’s farmhouse.
Across his 76-acre property lies a broken-down sedan, a rusted tractor and other dilapidated pieces of farming equipment. An abundance of rainfall has caused weeds to overtake much of the space around his home. Flies buzz incessantly in the warm Kansas sun. Winter is 84 years old and doesn’t have any children, nor does he have any extended family in Greeley County. He doesn’t have a valid driver’s license either, after failing to renew it on time.
And his Chevy pickup’s steering wheel has been taken apart, the components scattered across the driver’s seat. Winter is stranded in the country until he can fix it.
Wyatt Dautel occasionally brings Winter his mail and groceries. This time, he brought a part for the pickup.
Despite the help he’s getting from Dautel, Winter’s situation is dire.
“I broke my leg. Got cancer. Let’s see, what else? Oh, it’s terrible,” Winter sighed.
His intestinal cancer has spread to his lungs, and his cancer treatment in Garden City is supposed to start soon. Winter can’t get there without a car — the clinic, he said, won’t come and get him.
Although Dautel visits Winter a few times a week, he has his own family and job so he can’t always accommodate his friend.
Winter sees his hope in his ability to drive again.
“But I’ve got to try to save my license first, or I won’t even have this pickup,” he said. “They’ll take it away from me.”
A solution in Grant County
Establishing transportation networks for seniors isn’t easy or cheap, with government regulations to wade through and standards to meet. But some communities have found the means.
One small community in Grant County receives enough county funding to provide rides for seniors to go up to 90 miles outside county lines. Price Shipley, 85, can’t drive due to the gout in his feet but receives rides from his home in Ulysses to Garden City or Dodge City for medical appointments.
“I don’t know if every town has this or not, but this is excellent,” Shipley said.
Ludivina Gonzales, director of the Grant County Senior Center in Ulysses, said that even if seniors aren’t interested in being at the center, they can still take advantage of its transportation options.
The center has two transit vans, a shuttle with a wheelchair lift and a silver Bluebird Bus that takes seniors on field trips around the region.
“People in leadership really need to take note that we need to take care of our elderly people,” Gonzales said. “And that is something that I feel that our county really does well. And I think that it comes down to the leaders, the people that are making choices and decisions for the community.”
Reliable transportation enables seniors to maintain their independence and to age comfortably around family, friends and all that’s familiar, even in the smallest towns in the middle of America.
Andrew Lopez is a writer with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. He reported this story with a grant from The SCAN Foundation.
Andrew previously worked as a Korva Coleman Diversity in Journalism intern at KMUW.