A few years ago, we first came across articles promoting the benefits of ride-hailing services like Über and Lyft for seniors. As we explained in this article on the AgingOptions blog, re-printed last October, the ability to quickly and safely get a ride practically anywhere has the potential to be a game-changer for seniors no longer able to drive. But just last week we came across a brand-new article in the authoritative New York Times that suggests that little has changed. In spite of the potential for ride-hailing services to be a senior citizen’s magic carpet, most older adults are unwilling to use them.
Many Seniors Find Ride-Hailing Services Intimidating, Scary
“Older People Need Rides,” reads the New York Times headline. “Why Aren’t They Using Über and Lyft?” The article, written by reporter Paula Span, tells the story of one 94-year-old man, Martin Gerstell, living in Washington, DC, who uses Über to get to the National Gallery of Art where he volunteers every Thursday. “Usually, fellow volunteers give him a ride from his assisted living residence in northwest Washington to the museum downtown, and home again,” says Span. “But when they can’t, Mr. Gerstell, 94, uses the Über app his granddaughter installed on his iPhone.” Fortunately, Mr. Gerstell is a retired electrical engineer and has had little trouble embracing the smart phone-based technology, but it would appear that this spry nonagenarian is the exception. “Seniors need transportation alternatives more than ever, but many are intimidated by ride-hailing apps,” laments the Times.
One senior volunteer who trains older adults on digital technology theorizes about the reason why. “Her students take happily to Facebook, but ‘Über and Lyft are scarier because they involve money,’ she explained. Older adults, warned continually about scams and identity theft, fear that misusing an app could empty their bank accounts.” This reluctance comes in spite of the fact that most seniors do appear to be getting on board the digital bandwagon, even if they’re a bit late to the party. The New York Times article quotes data from the Pew Research Center showing that more than half of adults over 65 own smartphones – yet only about one-quarter of adults 50 and older used ride-hailing services in 2018. That’s a big leap from the 7 percent who used these services in 2015, but it’s drastically less than the 18 to 29-year-olds, more than half of whom are ride-hailing customers. These figures match a 2018 survey by AARP, which also reported that about two-thirds of respondents had no plans to use ride-hailing services in the coming year. The biggest concerns involved safety and privacy.
Ride-Hailing Services Have Potential to be “Game-Changers”
“Nevertheless,” the Times article says, “transportation experts see ride-hailing as a way to improve mobility and preserve independence for older people who can or should no longer drive, or never did.” One health technology expert calls ride-hailing and (eventually) autonomous vehicles “game-changers” for housebound seniors. There may be cause for optimism: new research has shown that, when provided with personalized instruction, older adults can become accustomed to mobile ride-hailing apps and use them for everything from medical appointments to fitness classes. In one recent study out of USC, reporter Paula Span writes, “researchers at the University of Southern California offered three free months of unlimited Lyft rides to 150 older people in and around Los Angeles (average age: 72) who had chronic diseases and reported transportation problems. With training, nearly all used Lyft, most through the mobile app (a few used a call-in service), for an average of 69 trips. On follow-up questionnaires, almost all riders reported improved quality of life.”
(Unfortunately, the downside comes a bit later in the article – the cost. “Will ride-hailing be too expensive for many seniors?” the Times asks. “In the USC study, the typical trip cost $22; the cost per month, had users actually paid it, averaged $500. After the study, about a fifth of riders said they wouldn’t continue using ride-hailing, mostly because of cost.”)
Ride-Hailing Services Seek Out New Partnerships to Serve Seniors
Still, Lyft, Über and other upstart competitors see the senior market as potentially lucrative. “Ride-hailing companies aren’t waiting around for more older adults to grow adept with their phones,” says Span. They’re introducing services that can be accessed via touch tone phone instead of using the app. They’re arranging with retirement centers to offer rides that can be ordered and paid for through the front desk, eliminating the worries about billing and credit cards. Health care centers are finding it cheaper to offer ride-hailing services instead of taxi vouchers to patients requiring transportation, and some Medicare Advantage plans are getting into the act, covering rides to doctor appointments and pharmacies. (This service is of little use to regular Medicare beneficiaries, since Medicare so far does not offer this coverage. Also, as the New York Times article points out, ride-hailing services don’t yet reach rural communities where many seniors lack any sort of reliable public transportation.)
Ride-hailing companies definitely have a long road to travel before they achieve wider acceptance among seniors. Neither Lyft nor Über has yet to show a profit, either, so their long-term viability as companies remains a bit cloudy. Still, if these or other innovative services can make it possible for more seniors to stay active and independent even after they’ve stopped driving, we think it’s a good thing, and we’ll keep an eye on this story for future developments (even if we remain just a bit skeptical about self-driving cars).
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(originally reported at www.nytimes.com)