Seniors getting the rides they need as S.F.-based federation makes a commitment to transportation

In 2004, a survey of local congregations and social service providers revealed the biggest unmet need of Bay Area seniors: transit services.

Ever since then, the San Francisco– based Jewish Community Federation has been tackling the problem with much gusto.

Laura Mason

“Transportation has be-come a major focus area,” said Laura Mason, program officer at the federation’s Jewish Community Endowment Fund. “Transportation is what keeps seniors social, connected to community, and able to receive health care and other needed services.”

The federation has embarked on an ambitious funding and planning initiative. It targets programs that “span a range of strategies that meet these diverse needs,” Mason said, such as purchasing shuttle vans, organizing volunteer drivers, and providing group and individual services.

There’s even a driver wellness training component that allows seniors to drive more safely and longer into their golden years.

But what federation is not doing is throwing a blanket over the situation. “We’re taking a regional approach,” Mason explained. “There is ‘no one size fits all’ approach in transportation. Seniors have diverse needs.”

Mason and her colleagues ramped up their efforts to meet those needs in the wake of the federation’s 2004 Jewish Community Study. The huge undertaking uncovered all sorts of things in the S.F.-based federation’s service area (Sonoma and Marin counties, San Francisco and the Peninsula), including what Mason called “the area of greatest unmet need for seniors” — transit services.

“There are a total of 33,000 seniors in Jewish households [in the federation’s area], and 19 percent reported in the study needing transportation services,” Mason said.

“But this number is going to increase significantly. One-hundred percent growth of the senior population for individuals aged 85 and older is expected within the coming 25 years.”

This work is near and dear to Mason’s heart. In 2006, she completed her master’s thesis at the University of San Francisco. Her subject: providing transportation to Jewish seniors.

One thing Mason found out is that, for a variety of reasons, the number of elder caregivers has been decreasing over the past 30 years. Therefore, she said, the need for senior transportation solutions has never been greater.

Natalie Friedman, 90, participates in Sonoma County JCC trips funded by the Senior Excursion Fund.

“This year we embarked on a major community planning process. We are now working to determine gaps in services and identify the most viable and sustainable solutions,” Mason said. The planning process will be complete in July.

One recent example of the federation’s funding of senior transportation is the new voucher program it extended to local JCCs. Frail seniors who want to attend programs at JCCs now have the opportunity for transportation.

A program called Get Up & Go, offered through the Peninsula JCC in Foster City, pairs volunteers with seniors who need assistance running personal errands or getting to medical appointments.

Moreover, the federation has funded several local agencies and synagogues that are working to provide effective transportation to seniors.

One of the pilot programs is called Derekh HaBayta (“the way home”) and it began last fall at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. It was made possible because of a one-year grant of $15,000 from federation.

“Our idea was congregants helping congregants,” said Moji Javid, Rodef Sholom’s director of community connections. “We invited congregants to drive other [older] congregants to Shabbat services.”

Javid and her staff phoned 100 senior households and also asked for the synagogue’s non-senior members to volunteer as drivers. Thirty-five elders and 35 volunteer drivers signed up to participate in the program, and connections were set up based on geography.

“One question mark is will the seniors pick up the phone and contact a volunteer, or will they wait to be called? And if they’re waiting, will the drivers call the seniors?” Javid said. “We’re following up to see how the program is working. It may be too early to tell.”

But, Javid added, “We will keep doing this program,” noting that it is an excellent model for community building.

Another agency benefiting from the federation’s initiative is the JCC of Sonoma County. Had a grant not been made, seniors in Sonoma County might have remained cut off from cultural and social events, said Barbara Scharf, the program director of the Sonoma JCC’s Friendship Circle (a wide-ranging program for adults 55 and over).

One thing Scharf — and the seniors — particularly enjoy is the federation’s Senior Excursion Fund, which provides not only transportation to various arts and cultural events in the Greater Bay Area, but also free or discounted tickets.

“I now take seniors to different cultural events in the Bay Area,” Scharf said. “Our program is designed to serve the most vulnerable seniors who normally wouldn’t be able to attend these events.”

The Senior Excursion Fund allows elders to attend the San Francisco Symphony, the de Young and Asian Art museums, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and assorted musicals in San Francisco, including “Jersey Boys,” “Spamalot,” “The Lion King” and “The Color Purple.”

“The program prevents seniors from being isolated in Sonoma,” Scharf said. “It enables them to make connections with people. It also attracts Jews and non-Jews, which is important, and has developed the growth of our program. People are so grateful.”

Mason noted that the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation has made a significant contribution, enabling the community planning process to take place.

“Our goal is to provide friendly, high-quality services to seniors in the Bay Area,” Mason said.

Then, sounding a bit like cycling icon Lance Armstrong, she added, “It’s not just about a ride — it’s about companionship and meaningful connections to the community.”


Examples of transportation programs

Here’s a sampling of programs supported by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and its Jewish Community Endowment Fund:

• Senior Transportation Voucher Fund. Vouchers are used primarily to prevent isolation of seniors by bringing them to five participating JCCs in the region.

•Senior Excursion Fund. Provides tickets and transportation for art and cultural programs to frail and/or financially challenged seniors.

• Get Up & Go Program. Housed at the Peninsula JCC, it serves elders whose health status and/or mobility limitations make it difficult to do things like go shopping, run errands or get to medical appointments.

• Osher Marin JCC’s senior van program. The endowment’s Maimonides Fund purchased an 18-passenger van for the center in 2007. The vehicle is used in connection with the JCC’s senior programming and excursions.

• Derekh HaBayta (“the way home”). Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael is connecting older adults to nearby volunteer drivers and families. The goal is to provide transporttion to seniors who either no longer drive or who are not comfortable driving at night or in poor weather.

For more information on these and other senior transportation programs — or to find out how you can help provide funding — please contact Laura Mason at (415) 512-6273 or; or Tara Mohr at (415) 512-6424 or; or visit