By Andrew Martins
At 76 years old, Nancy Ruttle has things figured out.
Each morning, she gets a ride from her daughter to the Freehold Township Senior Center, where she spends most of her day. Once there, she could be crocheting one day and trying her luck at bingo the next. It’s a place where she can socialize with her fellow seniors as she moves from table to table.
It’s an easy life for a septuagenarian that’s been made far less complicated by one fact: Ruttle no longer drives. Like thousands of senior citizens in the state, she no longer holds a driver’s license.
“I never thought I’d be unable to drive. I never thought I’d need to take a bus,” Ruttle said. “I miss it.”
Elderly drivers in New Jersey have been a major topic of discussion in recent years. As an aging population in the most densely populated state continues to travel on increasingly congested roadways, there have been discussions on whether or not there should be mandatory driving tests for motorists over a certain age.
Although there are 33 other states that have such requirements, New Jersey focuses less on age and more on ability when it comes to who can and cannot have a license, Motor Vehicle Commission spokesperson Mairin Bellack said.
“It’s not the age, but medical ability that determines who will be able to hold a driver’s license,” Bellack said. “There is a medical review process in place.”
According to the MVC, a review of a particular driver occurs when the state agency receives “a letter from a family member, physician, judge or police officer” suggesting that the person be retested. Anonymous reports are not accepted.
Though age is not necessarily a factor, the agency admits that “with age often occurs a natural deterioration of important faculties…[such as] vision, reaction and response time, and information processing.”
According to a 2014 study by the Federal Highway Administration, approximately 18 percent of the nearly 6.2 million licensed drivers in New Jersey were age 65 and older. Of the more than 1.1 million drivers in that age group, nearly 583,000 were women, with 536,000 men making up the difference.
What the Federal Highway Administration does not account for is the number of senior citizens who either lost their licenses after a road incident or willingly surrendered them to their loved ones.
For Ruttle, her life behind the wheel came to an end when she lived in Hawaii in 2012. At the time, doctors said she would be able to continue driving for the foreseeable future, regardless of her reduced vision.
“For a long time I drove and it was good,” Ruttle said. “But if something were to happen, I’m old. I can die anytime. If I were to hit a younger person, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself.”
Phyllis Basto, a Freehold Township resident, said she also willingly gave up her license after a close call on the road nearly three years ago made her reevaluate the need to drive.
“I was driving my car and this other car shot right in front of me and he never stopped,” Basto said. “When I got home, I went to my daughter and said, ‘sell my car’ and that was the end of it.”
Though Basto said she “did not miss driving at all,” Ruttle said her decision was difficult at first.
“When I was living in Hawaii, I didn’t need to drive too much – everything was in walking distance,” Ruttle said. “But over here, you need a driver’s license to go anywhere.”
Though most younger drivers wouldn’t fathom a life without a license, let alone willingly giving that privilege away, Edison Township Assistant Director of Aging Judith Gillingham said it happens more often than expected with certain elderly groups.
“I see more females willingly give up their driver’s licenses because I think women are care givers,” Gillingham said. “I think women are more self-aware, whereas with men, I think it’s more of an ego thing. Men tend to define themselves by what they can or cannot do.”
For the last 13 years, Gillingham has been working with Edison’s nearly 15,000 senior citizens to provide them with specialized services.
One of the most important services she handles, Gillingham said, is the effort to provide special transportation services to the seniors who need it the most.
“Our services are used by the oldest of the old. Our average age here is 85,” Gillingham said. “Without our services, those folks are sitting in their house day in and day out, because physically, financially, cognitively, they are no longer driving and if we did not get them, they would either have to rely on their children, they would have to pay for a taxi – which is very expensive.”
At no cost to the nearly 200 seniors who use the service, the township provides for them to go to medical appointments, make weekly trips to the grocery store and to the senior center once a week for club activities.
Many municipalities throughout the state utilize similar transportation services for seniors. Both Basto and Ruttle regularly ride buses provided by Freehold Township to get to and from the senior center.
“I like the program because it’s easy and safe,” Ruttle said.
Funded by the municipal government, the Edison Senior Citizens Services Department employs six drivers and a fleet of buses, cars and vans to help seniors move around the 30 square-mile township.
“We try to gear our transportation services to those who have no other means of transportation,” Gillingham said. “These folks would be home bound without us and we’re almost an extended family to some of them.”
Last year, the program traveled approximately 60,000 miles with services provided five days a week.
Though a majority of senior transportation services are paid for by their respective municipalities, some smaller communities have had to find other ways of providing for their older residents.
In Plumsted Township, Senior Outreach Services Inc. is a private, 501c3 non-profit organization run mostly by senior citizen residents who volunteer their time and vehicles.
“We started our transportation services around 2008…when we had originally seven or eight drivers,” Senior Outreach Services President Patricia Johnson said. “Our client list has steadily grown since then.”
With zero municipal tax dollars funding the organization, Johnson said the group relies heavily on annual grant money and private donations.
In dealing with a tighter budget, Johnson said SOS has had to keep its programs in check, with travel restricted to a 25-mile radius.
“We used to go out of our area in Plumsted, but it got too much,” Johnson said. “Most of our drivers are seniors also, so they’re doing a service that they get no pay and no gas reimbursed.”
Even with those constraints in place, Johnson said the program’s drivers tallied 6,600 miles, with a majority of that distance being traveled by 10 to 13 regular drivers, most of whom are women.
Just like their counterparts in Edison and Freehold, the SOS takes its clients to medical appointments, the grocery store and other necessary trips.
In order for a senior in Plumsted to get a ride from SOS, they have to call 48 hours ahead of time and must be 62 years or older with no other means of transportation.
“At this point, some of our clients are very regular,” Johnson said. “We have one driver who’s available on the one day that one of our clients absolutely needs to get to the hairdresser.”
Though Johnson prides herself in the fact that the SOS provides services similar to those run by municipal departments with larger budgets, she said the group faces issues that are unique to the group’s volunteer status.
“Because we’re all seniors in the SOS and we’re all getting older every year, it kind of gets more difficult to get people to involve themselves,” Johnson said. “You don’t have to be a senior to volunteer with us…but I think we’re having this problem because a lot of younger people in their 40s and 50s are still working.”
Johnson and Gillingham said senior services help elderly citizens stay active and social. It also gives seniors and their families piece of mind, knowing there is another person watching after them.
“We had a woman who was always ready for her medical appointment, but one day she wasn’t standing at the door. The driver called the office and I went out to her apartment to check up on her,” Gillingham said. “Well it turned out that she had fallen on Friday night and I went to her on a Monday morning. If our driver did not know her habits…she would have laid there until something major might have happened.”
Regardless of the logistical hurdles and daily work to transport the elderly, both Johnson and Gillingham agreed that it was all worth it in the end.
“Our clients rely on us and we’re always there for them,” Johnson said. “It’s difficult to think that sooner or later we won’t be able to drive, but it’s nice to know that our clients know that there’s someone there for them.”
“It’s more than just a cab where you get in the back seat and get out,” Gillingham said. “It’s a feeling of belonging.”