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Volunteers needed to drive seniors to appointments

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Call-A-Ride volunteer Woody Dines holds the car door open for Talent resident Steve Clement on Friday after driving him to Asante.
Program doesn’t have enough drivers to meet need

A nudge from his wife prompted former Wilson Elementary School teacher Woody Dines to become a volunteer.

“I retired from 19 years of teaching. My wife wanted me to volunteer somewhere. She still works,” Dines said.

After seeing a list of volunteer opportunities, Dines joined the Call-A-Ride program and started driving senior citizens to their medical appointments.

“We always have nice conversations to and from the appointments. Some really want someone to talk to. They find out about me, and I find out about them,” he said.

Dines said many of the seniors have interesting stories to tell.

“If they’ve lived in the valley a long time, I get to hear what it was like in the old days. They point out, ‘None of this was here. This was just a dirt road.’ If they’re from other parts of the country, I find out what brought them here,” he said. “You can pick any topic and have an interesting conversation.”

Dines said the seniors are always very appreciative of the rides he provides. Some, like dialysis patients, are going to appointments that literally keep them alive.

Many patients with kidney failure have to go a few times a week to dialysis appointments where machines filter toxins from their blood. Without dialysis, they would sicken and die.

Because dialysis can take several hours, usually one Call-A-Ride volunteer drops a patient off and another driver picks the person up.

For most medical appointments, Dines spends about one hour picking up patients, driving them to their appointments, waiting and then taking them home.

“Sometimes I’ll just wait and read or play with my phone. If it’s close, I can go home or run an errand,” he said.

Some appointments are near his Medford home, while others take him farther afield to Ashland, Gold Hill and other parts of Jackson County.

Dines said the Call-A-Ride program is flexible, and people can commit as much time as they like. He usually provides two, three or four rides each week. Drivers get a list of the days and times when people need rides, then pick the appointments that fit their schedules.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Call-A-Ride’s volunteer base dropped from about 50 drivers to 35. The program doesn’t have enough drivers to help all seniors who need rides, said Community Volunteer Network Executive Director Kristin Milligan.

“We do have a wait list. That’s why we are looking to expand our volunteer base,” she said.

Milligan said the social interaction between patients and drivers can be as important as the ride to a medical appointment.

“We provide more than just medical transportation. It’s very important to get people to their medical appointments, but it’s the relationships and bonds our drivers form with clients that are so wonderful,” she said. “Some people are receiving really difficult medical treatment. They say they look forward to talking to their driver on the way there.”

Milligan said the drivers also watch out for the patients. If a senior doesn’t answer the door when a driver arrives, the driver can alert first responders to check on the person’s welfare.

Volunteers for Call-A-Ride must be 55 or older. The program does a background check and looks at volunteers’ Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles driving history to make sure clients will be safe, Milligan said.

Drivers are offered a mileage reimbursement of 30 cents per mile.

Milligan said seniors can qualify if they have no transportation options, or if they have options that don’t work well for them. Some people live too far from bus stops. Others may live with their adult children, but the adult children may not have time to drive seniors to appointments.

“Just because you have other options doesn’t mean you’re not eligible. If someone is living with their family, but everyone else in the household works full-time and can’t take them to appointments, we can help,” Milligan said.

If a senior is already getting rides through programs like Valley Lift, Call-A-Ride encourages them to keep using that service, she said.

Volunteer Lonny Slack said he enjoys helping seniors who can’t drive themselves to medical appointments anymore. He started volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They are wonderful people who I would never have had the chance to meet if not for the Call-A-Ride program. They’re very appreciative,” said Slack, an Ashland resident who is retired from a local insurance agency.

He said his oldest client is over 100 years old. Many tell interesting stories about their lives. Some have active social lives, while others are more isolated.

“Quite a few of them live alone. I might be one of the few people they interact with in a week. A little bit of human contact is a good thing. This program is very beneficial to a lot of people,” Slack said.

He said the Call-A-Ride program helps many people continue to live in their houses or apartments rather than move into an assisted living facility.

“A lot of them are very independent — aside from they don’t have the ability to drive themselves to an appointment,” he said.

Slack said volunteering through the Call-A-Ride program is a flexible way to give back to the community.

“It’s a great way to offer a service to someone else. It doesn’t take a lot of time. You can schedule as many rides as you want and take time off. I just took three weeks off and went to Italy,” he said.

Slack said he hopes more volunteers will step forward to help seniors.

“I’ve enjoyed it immensely. When you help someone, you get a lot more in return,” he said.

For more information and to volunteer, call 541-857-7783.

Seniors who need rides to medical appointments can call that same number to see if they are eligible for the program.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.