Easy Lift Transportation has expanded its services for senior citizens who need to get around Santa Barbara with its Greatest Generation Accessible Transportation program.

Ernesto Paredes, executive director of Easy Lift, said the program’s design originated from a children’s program. The Childrens Accessible Transportation program dedicates a van to transport children to various Santa Barbara counseling services, such as Child Abuse Listening and Mediation, and some recreational services.

Easy Lift Executive Director Ernesto Paredes

Easy Lift Executive Director Ernesto Paredes

“It was a very successful model, so we decided to emulate that and work with groups of seniors who aren’t frail enough for the Dial-a-Ride program and won’t realistically use MTD,” Paredes said. “We wanted to work with people who are stuck in that middle ground before they get to the point that they’re using a wheelchair.”

The program has proven successful since its launch a few months ago, with 1,500 rides given to seniors to six programs in a 21-person van.

“We’re creating model a that shows how one vehicle can serve so many agencies,” Paredes said. “We are the connector of people in the community to programs and services. We want to be the resource for organizations so they don’t have to fundraise for vans.”

Connecting seniors to programs and services is crucial to combating senior loneliness and isolation. Easy List is transporting 2,000 seniors at any given time, often to medical appointments and meal sites.

“These seniors are living on very fixed incomes who are making tough decisions with food and medicine. If they can get hooked up to a meal site, it helps so much. Food programs are so important in this community,” Paredes said. “People take for granted that they eat three meals a day. Some seniors will eat one meal per day at a senior center, then go another 24 hours before they eat again.

“No one wants to get their car keys taken away. There’s a sense of a loss of independence when that happens. Some individuals who want to go to these programs will drive when they know they shouldn’t, and sometimes they get in accidents. Then they become passengers for Easy Lift.”

GGAT and other Easy Lift programs also transport seniors to other places — adult education classes, hair appointments and recreational programs — that can improve seniors’ quality of life.

“Daily activity is so valuable in reducing the risk of these people becoming institutionalized. Also, the dispatch person or driver will sometimes establish small relationships with seniors and learn about their lives,” Paredes said. “We’re very lucky in Santa Barbara to have so many great programs and services for seniors, but if they can’t get there, the programs are of no value.”

As more baby boomers retire and move to Santa Barbara, Easy Lift sees an ever-increasing demand for services.

“We’ve heard about the graying of our community — we’re seeing it here,” Paredes said. “Our challenge is to be able to increase our fleet by five or 10 more vehicles within the next few years. Obviously, it’s been tough the last few years and maintaining the status quo has been our victory. We’re going to look for individual donors to add to our funding base, but we live in a community where kids are king.”

Children aren’t the only demographic Paredes sees taking precedence over senior citizens. Issues facing the homeless also get a fair share of the public’s attention in Santa Barbara.

“The homeless coalition does a very good job of keeping homeless issues in public consciousness,” Paredes said. “What we don’t hear about very often is seniors dying prematurely because they weren’t getting adequate attention. We’ll probably see more seniors dying on the streets before we get the attention from local officials and the general population. It’s an issue that will keep growing.”

The demand for transportation is likely to continue to increase as well. Although Easy Lift and GGAT operate on a first call, first serve basis, they try to make medical appointments and nutrition programs priorities.

“Each year we provide more than 70,000 transportation requests, and we turn down about 300 requests per month,” Paredes said. “The demand keeps increasing.”

Paredes, who earned a bachelor’s degree in gerontology from USC, said that adult children tend to pre-live their aging parents’ lives, and when something unexpected happens, it can take a devastating toll on a family.

“People work their whole lives to prepare for their golden years, and when something unpredictable happens, like a catastrophic illness, all of the money for traveling goes to health care for a spouse,” Paredes said. “Some advisers would recommend the couple divorces so they wouldn’t have to use all of their assets and the spouse would qualify for Medicaid. No one wants to divorce their partner for that kind of financial reason.”

Paredes said the best way adult children can help their senior parents is to get them involved in the community and connect them with programs that interest them.

“Some people are more social than others, and some people like being by themselves,” he said. “Going to a senior center a few times a week isn’t for everybody, and we shouldn’t force our aging parents to do that. Just as we need to listen to our children, we need to listen to our aging parents to see what they want. If they like sitting by themselves reading, suggest a reading group. Don’t put them in a socializing situation where they may become more miserable.”

Easy Lift services cost $3.50 per ride. For more information on Easy Lift and GGAT, click here or call 805.681.1181.

Noozhawk contributing writer Taylor Orr can be reached at torr@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.