Transportation, access to food hinder older adults aging in place

As seniors age, their happiness and well-being are greatly dependent on staying in their own homes and not moving into a senior care facility. But maintaining homes as physical abilities decline is difficult. Obstacles like transportation and ill-equipped living spaces often force moves to a nursing home or an assisted living facility. Seldom is this the preferred choice for older adults.

It’s also not a great choice for communities. Keeping the senior population in our neighborhoods – no matter how young and hip the neighborhoods are becoming – adds diversity and richness. Older residents built and grew our community and have lived through a serious chunk of history.

“Transportation is a huge barrier,” says Carney. “If people cannot get out of their homes to their appointments, shopping, etc., they cannot stay.”

“So much of a focus is being placed on urban renewal, attracting people to move back to Detroit. This is a great focus,” says Brenda Carney, assistant director of service coordination at the Luella Hannan Memorial Foundation in Detroit. “But what about the foundation of Detroit, the older adults who stuck with the city through thick and thin?”

Carney says the focus is not on them. Much attention and work is needed to help more seniors remain in their community as they age.

Affordable home modifications, extra assistance for personal care and household care, and social isolation create barriers for seniors who want to stay in their homes.

Here in expansive metro Detroit, major challenges to aging in place also include transportation and food access.


One-quarter of Detroit seniors lack access to an automobile; the public bus system and its schedule are challenging and unreliable. Yet seniors need reliable and accessible transportation to get to doctor appointments, to stay connected to friends and families, and to access needed goods and services, like groceries and laundry facilities.

If seniors are low-income and Medicaid eligible, they may qualify for medical transportation. SMART offers connector services for those who meet the criteria.

Detroit’s Hannan House Service Coordination Program helps to connect low-income seniors to needed services, like transportation.

Some municipal governments, along with private nonprofits like Jewish Senior Life in Oak Park and St. Patrick Senior Center in Midtown, offer seniors transportation to community events, doctor appointments or shopping. But transportation remains an obstacle for many.

“Transportation is a huge barrier,” says Carney. “If people cannot get out of their homes to their appointments, shopping, etc., they cannot stay.”

Chris Hench, chief operating officer at JARC, an Oakland County agency that provides housing and services for people with developmental disabilities, agrees that transportation is critical for aging in place.

Older African Americans in Detroit suffer from disproportionate rates of disease and premature death, often due to conditions that can be prevented through better health and nutrition management.

More than 60 percent of JARC residents are 50 years of age or older. Getting them around is not easy; if a senior uses a wheelchair, an accessible vehicle is needed.

“Seniors need to get out of their homes just like everyone else,” says Hench. “They need to visit old friends, have the stimulation of new surroundings, and get out to have plain fun.”

JARC’s older residential clients live in group homes and independent living situations. The agency is working to keep aging residents in their JARC homes – homes that they have lived in for years and learned to love. JARC has installed wheelchair ramps, renovated bathrooms and hallways for accessibility, and beefed up staffing so residents can stay in their homes.

“Seniors add richness to the community and should not be shuffled off to a nursing home,” says Hench. “We need to realize that if someone is becoming forgetful or developing dementia, the last thing we should do is to move them.”

Food & Nutrition

Chronic illness among Detroit seniors is high (89 percent), and diabetes is among the top 10 reasons for hospitalization in the city. Additionally, older African Americans in Detroit suffer from disproportionate rates of disease and premature death, often due to conditions that can be prevented through better health and nutrition management.

But affordability can be a challenge. Detroit has the third highest average annual household expenditures for food of 18 U.S. metropolitan areas. For seniors living on a fixed income, food budgeting is a challenge.

Many programs are working toward keeping seniors nourished.

At St. Patrick Senior Center in Midtown, hot congregate meals are served to around 200 seniors seven days a week. By default, sharing meals also means socialization and fellowship. Research shows that people who feel connected to others actually live longer.

As one St. Patrick senior shared, “Before coming here, I was eating hamburgers and hotdogs,” he says. “Being a single man, I don’t cook much. Now, I wonder how I was surviving.”

Densely nutritious food can do nothing but help older adults.

Gleaners Community Food Bank works with Hannan House in Detroit to get affordable produce to seniors through the Fresh Food Share program.

More than 20 seniors each month order fresh produce for $14 for a small box and $24 for a large box; boxes include a newsletter with recipes for preparing the food in the share and other tips for healthy eating and living.

Many seniors who live on their own or with one other person will get a small box,” says Ariana Riegel, who coordinates the program for Gleaners. “There are also a fair number of seniors who are supporting themselves and children or grandchildren. They tend to get large boxes or more than one box.”

A poll of Fresh Food Share participants shows diet improvements, including 44 percent eating more fruit than before and 37 percent eating more dark green leafy vegetables. So the program is an easy and affordable way for seniors to get fresh food regularly, increase their nutritional knowledge, and support local farmers.

While seniors eat better, Fresh Food Share offers a sustainable solution to providing a permanent source of affordable, healthy food to our aging population.

With the region’s 60+ population growing rapidly (by 2020, more than 22 percent of Michigan residents will be seniors), access to safe, affordable and healthy food is crucial for seniors.

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