By Amanda Gray
In the summer of 2016, Larry Miller had no idea what he was going to do.
Losing his sight from a degenerative disease, Miller also lost something that he’d used every day since adolescence - his ability to drive.
“I didn’t like thinking of myself as frail, or a senior, or disabled,” Miller recounted. “I said, ‘How am I going to maintain my life?’”
Miller’s story is not unique; thousands of seniors are faced with the situation of illness or age taking away facets of their independence across Elkhart County each year. But, because he lives here, he had the option of utilizing the Council on Aging and its transportation services. His son Craig found the agency and sent in an application; shortly afterward, Miller was on the roster and able to put down his car keys with confidence.
The Council on Aging is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit agency that serves the senior population in Elkhart County in ways that no other agency or business does; the in-home care, transportation services and life enrichment activities foster wellness, dignity, and independence to the 52,000 seniors in Elkhart County - with 25,000 more on the way in the next 10 years - meaning that, at that point, seniors will outnumber youth in Elkhart County.
Miller and his wife, Karen, use the CoA for doctor’s appointments, and the Council’s drivers also take clients to run errands, trips to see family, or other needed travel. Because of such high demand, nearly 99 percent of CoA trips are for medical visits.
“I tell people that the Council on Aging has been wonderful in terms of transportation, but if you just think of them as just a transportation service, you’re missing what’s important,” Miller said. “They got me out of my social isolation, they made it possible for me to age in place and prolong my independence. They enhanced my autonomy.”
It’s a similar situation for James Orr — but on the other side of the wheel. Orr, a driver for the Council on Aging, retired three separate times before he found the agency. He didn’t take well to retirement, he said, but finds a sense of peace and belonging in driving around Elkhart County’s seniors to their appointments and errands.
Orr teared up while recounting the companionship he had with one man, Lyle, who used the CoA’s services for trips to dialysis before he died. Another client, a woman named Raquel, called Orr an angel for helping her get out of the house.
“It’s funny how you just don’t forget some of these things. They really leave a mark on you,” Orr said. “Helping people, being able to help people, is worth so much more than being able to make a dollar.”
Joe Kohler’s day starts with an inspection of the vehicle before he picks up his first client of the day. He might see six or more clients in a typical day driving for the CoA. Before he’s left work, he asks about the next day’s drives and looks up addresses and directions at home, if he’s never been there before. He’s got a lot of repeat clients, though, which brightens his day. One couple tells him about their garden on the way to dialysis. Another tells him about their grandkids. Miller keeps Kohler enraptured with his tales of his days as a salesman of church organs and a fundraiser, traveling throughout the country.
“It makes me feel good that at least, even though I’m drive them to medical facilities and appointments, I get to help them get out and talk to someone they might not see very often,” Kohler said.
Council on Aging CEO David Toney said the clients he encounters often talk about the friendships and independence the services give them - but, perhaps nearly as important as the doctor’s appointment is the weekly socialization the car trip gives them.
“For 70 percent of our clients, our trips or at our life enrichment activities are their primary socialization efforts each week,” Toney said.
While folks in Elkhart County might not realize it, the Council on Aging is the only resource created for seniors to have reliable transportation, in-home care and life enrichment in the county. It’s an independent non-profit that keeps the doors open and lights on only from grants and donations from the community. At the same time, 15 local agencies serve the youth population of Elkhart County. Toney said that helping grandma, grandpa, or another senior relative through the CoA will help these children, too, especially because these senior adults are helping take care of these children or part of the larger family.
“We’re not doing this just because it’s a job. No one here makes a lot of money; they’ve all made more money someplace else,” Toney said. “They’re doing this because they have a true passion for these people, and you feel that you should do what’s right and give back to seniors.”
The dedication to serving the senior population can be felt at all levels of the company, Toney said, and he hopes that donations from the community will help expand the services they provide and the technology the company uses to keep in contact with clients and their families.
“The next group will also be different seniors than in the past,” Toney explained. “They’ll be familiar with technology. They’ll want to make an appointment for services at a time convenient for them, and they’re going to want to see and give feedback digitally. They’re going to want to know what we’re doing for them or their loved one. We have to step up to that standard - and we can’t wait until then to do it.”
The current goal is to have the resources to assure that the CoA can take all requests for services and not turn anyone away, Toney said. The CoA leadership also wish to have enough funds to cover all planned improvements to technology and equipment.
“You have to be loyal to the people who were loyal to you. In the last 50 years, Elkhart County has burned down and come back up economically,” Toney explained. “Most people we serve stayed here. They could’ve gone somewhere else, but they stayed to help build this community. As members of that community, we owe it to them the same care, when they need us.”
Orr said he often gets misty-eyed while talking to clients, helping them with at least this small part of their days.
“What’s impressed me the most is that you have a lot of people that just care about other people at the Council,” he explained. “We all really understand people getting older and not having anybody to really help them. Whether it’s talking to them, getting them to an appointment, or just being there for them.”
To Larry Miller, though, it’s simple: the Council on Aging is like family. They helped drag him out of the “blackness” of 2016, giving him meaning to his life and enjoyment in his weekly travels, despite his declining health.
“They’re the only transportation service available for seniors. It’s safe, it’s affordable, they value you,” he said. “They treat you like you’re important, like you’re an asset. I can’t say enough about them.”