When it comes to getting around, the choices for long-termcare residents and caregivers have never been better.

Whether used for short jaunts to the doctor or longer excursions to the casino, vans and buses are integral parts of any long-term care operation. And as transportation becomes increasingly important for ferrying a more active senior population around, manufacturers are continually looking for ways to develop new vehicle options that make the process safer and easier.

Bus and van makers continue to refine and improve vehicles, with an eye toward making residents and staff more satisfied.
“The buses themselves have become much safer,” says Charlotte Miller, director of marketing for Elhart, IN-based Glaval Bus. “Regular features today include grab handles, higher-backed seats, internal rearview mirrors for improved passenger monitoring, better driver training and better wheelchair tie-down arrangements with retractable belts that stay out of the way when not used. These changes not only make the passengers more comfortable but also substantially reduce attendants’ labor, lowering job-related injuries.”
A senior population that swells with each passing year is inspiring as even more innovations, she adds.
“We as bus manufacturers must be prepared to equip the care facilities that cater to [residents’] personal needs through innovative transportation products,” Miller said. “Glaval Bus is doing that by continuing its research and development of products, from wheelchair-equipped models to the low-floor buses, which passengers enter and exit via ramp access.”
Manufacturers also realize that vehicles are a major investment for assisted living operators and that it is incumbent upon vendors to help facilities make the most appropriate choices, said Nick England, president of Lewisville, TX-based Lasseter Bus & Mobility.
“For most purchasers of small buses, transportation is not the primary business of a facility,” he said. “Buses and vans are purchased only because transportation must be provided to the residents of the facility. Because it is not their primary business, the person making the buying decision often lacks the expertise that would ensure they equip a vehicle in a way that best addresses the specific needs of that facility. It is such a big investment, investing the time to do it right is critical. That is why working with a dealer who understands their needs is so important.”

Popular options

What are operators looking for in a bus or van? Although there is a wide range of answers to that question, there are some commonalities. When it comes to vehicle models, most assisted living facilities prefer 12-passenger capacity hybrid bus-vans, while skilled nursing facilities are opting for a “12 and two,” which has more room to accommodate wheelchairs, said Bill Flynn, vice president of South Grafton, MA-based Atlantic Turtle Top.
Additionally, “everyone asks for upgraded suspension,” he said. “People want the smoothest ride.”
Other extras that are popular with customers are aisle-side sliding seats, which can be adjusted so that passengers have a little more room between their seats; retractable seatbelts, which automatically revert back into the holster instead of laying on the floor; a key switch that allows doors to be open at the entry point instead of just at the driver’s seat; back-up cameras and rust-proof fiberglass step wells.
“For buses that are five to seven years old in salty climates, the step well is the first thing to go,” Flynn said.
Extra storage for packages and groceries, as well as electronic entertainment packages, TV/DVD players and monitors also are in demand, said Royce Harper, sales manager with Kansas City-based Mid America Coach.
“Plush high-back reclining seats with armrests and footrests, beverage holders and trays are just a few of the amenities available today,” he said. “It basically comes down to more room and comfort. Passengers want to be able to drive their scooters into the bus, board easily with larger wheelchairs and enjoy a quiet and safe ride to their destinations.”

The fuel challenge
High prices for gasoline and diesel fuel are the grim reality of the transportation industry today, and barring a radical change in vehicle operation, it is not likely to improve anytime soon.
“Alternative fuels are not a consideration in the near future,” England said. “Neither the technology nor the infrastructure are advanced enough to make alternative fuels practical for most of the private sector.”
Jay Baskett, sales manager for Mid America Coach, agrees, saying that petroleum-fueled vehicles will remain the standard as long as there is no pressure on the automotive industry to change.
“Until automakers are forced to change over to alternative-powered vehicles, nothing will happen,” he said. “The cost to do this is great and they will not do it unless it becomes mandatory. There would need to be more service centers and fuel stations for the different engines for it to be practical. The oil companies will spend a lot of money to prevent hydrogen or electric-powered vehicles from being successful.”

Beyond ‘How much?’

Long-term care operators can be highly methodical in their approach to buying resident transport vehicles, based on the breadth and depth of “typical” questions they ask. Nick England, president of Lewisville, TX-based Lasseter Bus & Mobility, offered a comprehensive rundown of questions he fields regularly. It provides a glimpse into the market-specific rationale facility operators use when purchasing a vehicle:

• How much is enough air-conditioning capacity and what does that do to the demand on the alternator?
• What impact does a larger aftermarket alternator have on access to service of that component?
• Which brand of wheelchair lift is most reliable?
• Will the arrangement of wheelchairs permit random access?
• Which wheelchair securements are least likely to result in injury of a passenger due to improper use?
• How frequently are wheelchair securement spaces used and what impact will foldaway seats have on access to that space if placed in the back of the bus?
• Which seat upholstery is best suited for passengers who may be incontinent?
• Will cove-molding the floor covering assist with cleaning?