Driven to succeed: serving residents and beating the competition through creative transportation choices

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Driven to succeed: serving residents and beating the competition through creative transportation cho
Driven to succeed: serving residents and beating the competition through creative transportation cho
In a growing number of seniors housing communities, transportation services have taken a turn toward the innovative in an attempt to help residents maintain some independence and stay more closely connected to their surroundings.But those aren't the only reasons, experts point out. Operators that commit to more robust transportation offerings likely will have an edge over the competition by capturing the interest of prospective residents, while also satisfying existing ones.

“It would appear that the availability of transportation for shopping, doctor appointments and other [purposes] is becoming a key component in deciding which facility to choose,” says Bob Anderson, director of commercial and retail sales for Midwest Transit Equipment of Kankakee, IL. He added that the ever-evolving and diverse needs of residents are largely driving that trend.

“The length of time that a person can stay in a hospital and/or rehab facility is getting shorter all the time. Therefore, there are residents who have significant mobility challenges that need to be able to get to appointments [and other destinations].”

Rethinking the model

These days, seniors housing transportation is less geared toward getting residents from Point A to Point B and more toward helping them reach their destinations in comfort and style. Speed and dignity are major factors, too.

Increasingly, traditional handicap-accessible minivans and shuttle buses are sharing the lot with a fleet of other vehicles, each of which serves its own purpose and delivers in terms of both form and function.  

  “No question, transportation is one service that residents are really looking at closely these days—but it's the quality, reliability and accessibility of the transportation being provided that really matters most,” stresses Glenn Brichacek, Ph.D., president and CEO of The New Admiral at the Lake, a continuing care retirement community currently under development in Chicago.

“You have to look at residents' current needs, while also anticipating how those needs will change in the future. It's about providing a service that, in some ways, is as diverse as the residents being served.”

  For The New Admiral, diversity will come in the way of electric and hybrid cars (complete with electrical outlets in parking garages to keep them charged), a small bus and shuttle van, a town car, and even car-rental services for staff and more independent residents who occasionally require a personal vehicle to attend off-site events, run errands or visit family and friends.

A wider array of options is increasingly important, reasons Brichacek, as more couples move into seniors housing communities together—often with one senior still capable of traveling with limited or no assistance.

“Whether they can travel on their own or need someone to drive them to their destination, or a mix of both, it's important that we are able to keep them connected to what's important, but within their community and beyond,” he says. “That can mean getting them to and from doctor appointments, dinner or the theater, or any other [destination].”

“Just because they move to a [seniors housing community] doesn't mean that they want to cut ties to all the things they did and enjoyed before. In fact, in some cases, they're moving to a particular community because of its accessibility to all of those things.”

Still, what works for one facility won't always work—or even be necessary—for another. Transportation requirements for more active CCRC or assisted living residents, for example, will typically differ greatly from those in skilled nursing. Demographics, too, largely factor into the equation.

“Every facility is different. A facility in a big city, for example, may have very different needs than one in a rural location,” explains Steve Simmonds, vice president of Transport U, a Pittsburgh, PA-based senior transportation provider with service areas in Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio and parts of West Virginia. “And what was needed in one facility last month, or even last week or yesterday, may be different than what is needed today, so flexibility is key.”

Value options gain traction

But transportation diversity doesn't have to come at a hefty price. Many budget-conscious communities have abandoned the notion that they must own their own fleet, opting instead to either lease their vehicles or outsource the function altogether.

“This allows a facility to have a fixed operating expense, as opposed to capital on the their books,” explains Anderson, noting that with the lease option, facilities can make a low monthly payment, ensure that their vehicle remains under warranty, and trade it in for a new model at the end of the term. “This way, a facility always has a nice-looking [vehicle] that is mechanically sound.”

Facilities' interest in partnering with third-party transportation services providers is a trend that Simmonds says he is witnessing firsthand—including in Pennsylvania's Allegheny County, which boasts the largest 85-and-older population in the country.  

Since Transport U began operating in 2004, it has seen its seniors housing clients grow from “a handful” to 20—many of which outsource their entire transportation function to the service provider. Because facilities schedule their transportation service and pay only for the services provided, “it's a much less expensive option,” Simmonds says.

To meet the growing demand, Transport U's fleet has grown from 15 vans to a mix of 38 vehicles, including 18 wheelchair-accessible minivans and six standard minivans, two luxury sedans, 10 full-size wheelchair-accessible vans, one 11-passenger wheelchair-accessible bus, and a 39-passenger bus. The array of predominantly handicap-accessible vehicles means residents can be picked up and dropped off more quickly and efficiently, often with far less fuel consumption, and improved comfort and dignity.

Safety and reliability are also critical, Simmonds notes. Drivers provide “door-through-door service.” They also under go extensive geriatric sensitivity training that includes being strapped in a wheelchair and transported, and donning cataract glasses to depict some of the impairments and concerns their passengers regularly face. Such training also helps drivers pinpoint changes in residents' conditions, which then can be conveyed back to the facility.

“Transportation is really an extension of the care plan,” he says.

Some facilities are willing to hand over the keys to their transportation program altogether and others are opting for a wider array of vehicles. Then there are still others that are looking to pare down their fleet.

Smaller fleets

“From a parts and maintenance point of view, many facilities don't want multiple vehicles,” notes Marc Klein, executive vice president of business development for The Vehicle Production Group LLC in Miami.

Instead, many are looking for nimble, smaller vehicles with easy access that can comfortably and conveniently transport as many different types of people as possible, including obese and handicapped residents, he says.

This year, VPG introduced the MV-1, the first factory-direct mobility vehicle designed from the ground up for wheelchair accessibility. The vehicle, similar in size to a Cadillac Escalade, will enter production in the fourth quarter and retail for about $40,000.

Sometimes, though, convenience and accessibility trump luxury and comfort. For The Admiral at the Lake, easy access to public transportation and bike paths is as important the availability of traditional vehicles.

“We chose this location because we anticipate a number of residents will be moving in without a vehicle and some will be looking for easy access to the train or bus,” Brichacek says.

The community will work with Chicago Transit Authority to offer bus and rail passes to residents, and discounted rates for staff.

“Keeping residents connected to their old and new neighborhoods, and helping employees get to and from our community, even in inclement weather, plays a direct role in resident and staff satisfaction—and that has a direct impact on quality of life,” Brichacek says.

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