N. Fulton fills transportation gap, gets seniors to doctors

When 70-year-old Juanita Usher of Johns Creek needs to see a doctor, she calls and schedules a ride through Senior Services North Fulton.

With the Transportation Options Program for Seniors (TOPS), Usher can get to whatever medical appointment she has, whether for her breast cancer treatments at various locations around metro Atlanta, or for routine exams closer to home.

For Usher, the door-to-door service takes away the stress of driving on the expressway, which makes her nervous, and keeps her from sitting alone in the waiting room. Her driver will be a certified nursing assistant who can help out with the visit.

“That’s the beautiful thing about it, that they stay with you at the appointment and help you. They really care about you,” said Usher. “I’m so glad I found out about this program. This has been a real blessing to me.”

An employee with Caliber Care + Transport helps a senior from North Fulton get to her medical appointment. Senior Services North Fulton contracts with Caliber to provide door-to-door transportation for any type of health care appointment, including dental and eye appointments. The service is available to seniors 60 and older living in North Fulton. (Photo contributed by Senior Services North Fulton) (For the AJC)

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Getting to a doctor’s appointment can be challenging for seniors in metro Atlanta, especially for those who no longer drive. Transportation in general is a top unmet need for older adults statewide and the most-needed service for them to remain independent, according to surveys taken by the Georgia Division of Aging Services.

Senior Services North Fulton started TOPS in 2009 after Meals on Wheels clients said they weren’t going to the doctor because they didn’t have a way to get there, said executive director Ron Harlow. He said his staff recognized the transportation problem, but seniors themselves were also telling them about it.

TOPS serves adults 60 and older who live in North Fulton and need transportation to medical appointments and preventative health care exams. The door-to-door service can accommodate those in wheelchairs and other special needs. Of the 240 participants, about half have some sort of chronic health condition, or they’ve suffered from a stroke, Harlow said. The service is free, but participants can make voluntary contributions.

At first, seniors were limited to one or two rides a month, but that was difficult for those on chemotherapy or kidney dialysis. Those with chronic illnesses may have multiple doctors to see on a regular basis. Because of increased financial support from corporate donors, civic groups, foundations and individuals, clients now have unlimited rides to any type of medical appointment, including well check-ups and screenings, dental care and eye exams.

» RELATED: Senior transportation services a growing need in metro Atlanta

Using TOPS, seniors can get to any medical appointment in the metro area, and many have had visits to Grady Memorial Hospital, Emory University Hospital Midtown, and the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur.

“Helping our vets get back and forth to the VA is big with our program,” said Heather Terry, community relations director for Senior Services North Fulton.

Harlow said helping seniors get to their health care providers results in fewer missed or postponed appointments, which leads to better health outcomes.

This year, with a $50,000 grant from Kaiser Permanente of Georgia, senior services will track TOPS clients who have chronic illnesses to see if medical transportation and care management reduces the number of ER visits and hospitalizations. Kaiser is collecting the data for an outcomes performance study that will be completed at the end of the year.

“Improving access to health care services for high-risk groups, such as seniors, is a key focus of Kaiser Permanente’s Community Benefit Program,” explained Tammy Palmgren, who leads the Medicare program for Kaiser Permanente of Georgia.

She said over the last five years Kaiser has provided Senior Services of North Fulton with $70,000 to fund TOPS and other chronic disease management programs targeted at reducing the number of emergency room visits and missed doctor’s appointments among seniors.

For more than three years, TOPS has helped Richard “Dickie” Feldman, 72, of Sandy Springs manage his health care needs. Feldman said he is a heart patient and a diabetic who has to “be watched carefully.” Since he no longer drives he depends on transportation services to get around. The TOPS program is one of the best, he said.

When he schedules a pickup through Senior Services North Fulton, the driver is prompt and courteous. He has never had a problem getting to his medical appointments on time and then back home.

“It’s a clean bill,” Feldman said. “This is an outstanding service for senior citizens in the city. You can’t beat it.”

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