City works to meet elderly residents’ transit needs

By KELSEY KLOSS / FOR THE REGISTER

SANTA ANA – Eva Ruelas needed to visit the doctor often this month. She won’t take the bus, because she’s afraid of getting lost, she says. Her heart condition makes it too difficult to walk. Instead, without her own transportation, she gives her caretaker cash to drive her.

But every day, she receives a free ride to the Santa Ana Senior Center she’s visited for 21 years for computer classes, exercise groups and lunch. Her house is one of 200 stops the center’s shuttles make weekly.

The city’s downtown senior center expects to welcome additional transportation requests since the Birch Park Fitness Zone, an adjacent exercise area, opened this month, said advisory board member Luidina Hamilton. But when seniors like Ruelas need transportation for other purposes, like medical appointments, the city’s funding isn’t keeping up with demand, said Mario Ortega, chief operating officer of transportation provider Abrazar.

“The last two years it’s gone up tremendously,” Ortega said. “There used to be transportation for Medi-Cal recipients going to dialysis appointments, and that was taken away. A lot of those clients end up having to be there at 4 a.m. and are done at 9:30 a.m. For any working family trying to help a parent, it becomes pretty impossible.”

Abrazar is under contract by the Orange County Office on Aging, and serves county seniors with the Senior Mobility Program, which takes seniors to community centers, and its Senior Non-Emergency Medical Transportation, which takes them to doctor’s appointments. There are currently 40 qualified seniors on Abrazar’s waiting list for the Senior Mobility Program, and 270 for medical transportation, Ortega said.

Santa Ana pays for senior transportation with a percentage of Orange County Transportation Authority revenue, and funding from the countywide transportation tax plan, Measure M2. The city’s adopted funding for its Senior Mobility Program increased 1.3 percent in the 2013-15 budget from the 2011-2012 actual budget. But transportation companies aren’t receiving enough to satisfy the requests for non-emergency medical transit, Ortega said.

“The funding has gone up, it just hasn’t kept up with what the demand is,” he said. “It’s just a matter of capacity, and we have a certain budget that’s in our contract.”

Since each Orange County city receives a percentage of OCTA’s revenue for transportation services to community centers, funding fluctuates, but Santa Ana receives a required minimum of about $167,000, Lara said.

For Santa Ana seniors wanting to partake in recreational activities, the city’s two senior centers take clients Monday through Friday in two 16-passenger shuttles.

“A lot of them rely on it, given most of them, if not all of them, don’t have reliable transportation otherwise,” said Juan Lara, community services supervisor on the city’s Parks, Recreation, and Community Services staff. “Either they can’t afford it and they’re not able to have their own vehicles, or they’re not secure enough in themselves to continue driving.”

The senior centers refer clients looking for transportation to medical appointments or for other purposes, such as picking grandchildren up from school, to for-profit companies or Abrazar.

For seniors, even finding transportation to community centers is more than just a matter of convenience, said Hamilton, who has been a member of the Santa Ana Senior Center for 13 years.

“I have problems with my health, but I never stay home,” Hamilton said. “People do stay home, and get depressed and get Alzheimer’s. When you stay home, you don’t have anything to do, so you get sad.”

In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported there are more than 22,000 people 65 or older in Santa Ana. Although deals like OCTA’s $22.25 monthly bus pass for people older than 60 are available, Ruelas said she doesn’t feel comfortable traveling by public transportation.

“I don’t like the bus, because I don’t like going out alone,” Ruelas said. “It’s hard for me, because I live alone. I can’t go out alone, because my memory fails me. I’m afraid.”

Although it doesn’t offer medical transportation, the Santa Ana senior centers do offer weekly shopping trips and quarterly trips to destinations such as the Santa Barbara Mission, the Santa Anita racetrack and nearby casinos. Hamilton said she attends the excursions as often as she can.

“We suggest places we can go, and people get crazy over here to go to casinos,” she said. “Once, when we arrived, there was a Hawaiian party and we danced to music. That was super number one.”

But if there was more funding, more senior transportation for doctor visits and other appointments would be appreciated, Lara said.

“It would be a service that is welcomed by the seniors, to be completely honest,” Lara said. “With that in mind, they’re not able to give us additional funding because we don’t have the number of seniors based on their grant guidelines for funding. As much as we’d want to be able to do more, we’re not able to do it financially.”

For now, Hamilton said she’ll continue to leave her home as often as she can. She pushes her walker, which doubles as a cart and is filled with groceries.

“This is my limousine,” Hamilton said. “It’s better than a Cadillac.”