More drivers needed to take local seniors to medical appointments

July 3, 2012

By Raechel Dawson

Issaquah resident Catherine Swadley, 88, had open-heart surgery in November. As part of her recovery, she was advised to undergo physical therapy three times a week for three months, in Kirkland.

The problem: She wasn’t allowed to drive, let alone open heavy car doors.

“So I called Senior Services and they said they could provide drivers for me,” Swadley said.

These are not ordinary drivers, but rather volunteers who spend their time and gas contributing to the common good. Senior Services asks for small compensation (Swadley said she paid $6 each time), which goes to the nonprofit organization.

Issaquah currently has five volunteer drivers, but for the system to work properly there should be 15 to 20, according to Melissa R. Tribelhorn, recruitment and outreach coordinator for Senior Services.

Throughout King County there are typically about 350 volunteer drivers; the need, however, is greater and Tribelhorn said they could use 420 to 450.

How to help

To volunteer, you need to have a driver’s license, a vehicle and no moving violations.

Learn more about volunteering at

“We are really short for volunteers all over the Eastside. In fact, this week over half of the requests we had to turn down were Issaquah and Bellevue,” Tribelhorn wrote in a recent email.

Senior Services has been helping people 65 and older since 1967. The nonprofit has provided help — delivering groceries, doing minor home repair, providing transportation — to senior citizens throughout King County. Its mission is broad: to promote the emotional, social and physical well-being of older adults.

It received half of its $16 million annual budget from taxpayers through federal, state, city and county governments. The United Way of King County, donations and small fees help close the gap. But it’s still not enough.

Even with funding, volunteers are critical in transporting seniors to doctor’s appointments or physical therapy. Swadley explained that most family members are at work during the day and can’t take time off.

Issaquah resident Karl Plantinga, 81, is one of the five to put in the time to help his fellow seniors. Plantinga volunteers “once or twice” a week. He says he mainly takes people to Overlake Hospital, doctors around Evergreen Hospital and Renton dentist offices.

“We always have fun, laugh and stay away from political discussions,” Plantinga said. “I make it as pleasurable as possible for them.”

Plantinga said he got involved with Senior Services when he heard about the need for volunteers through the Kiwanis Club of Providence Point. Plantinga has served as president of the club and is now treasurer.

As a senior himself, he said he’s in pretty good health, but one day he hopes volunteer drivers will still be around. He and his wife don’t have children to help, so using Senior Services would clearly be an option.

But the scarcity of volunteers is still a problem.

“There’s been a little bit of a dip this year,” Tribelhorn said.

She attributes the increased need to the unstable economy as well as the fact that baby boomers are beginning to reach 65. Financial problems for older people are often the most impacting because it takes seniors much longer to find work than it would take a younger person.

The population of elderly will only rise.

The Elder Economic Security Standard Index for Washington reports that by 2030, those age 65 and older are estimated to increase in population by 133 percent. For Washington’s population, that’s a jump from 710,000 in 2005 to about 1,660,000 in 2030.

The U.S. Census Bureau calculated that Issaquah had 3,875 people age 65 and older in 2010. This means out of 30,434 Issaquah residents, nearly 12.7 percent of the city’s population are senior citizens. Five volunteers for that many seniors?

Tribelhorn and Senior Services are not giving up, though. She said there are many recruitment strategies along with fundraising events and fairs throughout the county that the organization might take advantage of to market itself.

Raechel Dawson is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.

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