If you called any of Maine’s five Area Agencies on Aging that serve older adults and ask them what needs their clients face that are particularly difficult to fulfill, one word will come up all too often: transportation.

It’s a long-time, vexing issue, especially for older and disabled Mainers living in particularly rural regions. And the state is not alone. Surveys carried out across the country have repeatedly found that older and disabled adults consider the challenge of getting to a doctor’s appointment, the grocery store or pharmacy, a friend’s house, a restaurant or movie theater, or the local senior center a top concern.

While many older adults continue to safely drive late into their lives, some cannot. For many, losing the ability to get out in the community because of a lack of transportation brings not just practical problems. It can mean a sense of lost independence, which poses a real threat to health and well-being.

Some 8 million people age 65 and older do not drive. The majority of them stay home more often, leave their homes for more limited periods of time, and make fewer trips to eat out, shop, or visit relatives and friends. Fifteen percent of older nondrivers also report seeing their doctor less often.

Many of us know firsthand the challenges family members face when an older parent or grandparent is unable to go places they used to go and the concern about whether the people you love are safely getting where they need to be.

There are many diligently working to support Maine’s older adults — providing transportation services or bringing needed services to individuals, such as meals on wheels, grocery delivery, home visiting and much more. Maine’s Area Agencies on Aging, regional community action programs, local transit programs and more informal local efforts such as church-organized transportation or ride-sharing between friends and neighbors are among those pitching in.

However, more needs to be done. Too many older Mainers live in communities where travel by car is their only option. This is especially true in rural communities. A study by Transportation for America reports that by 2015, almost 16 million older adults will reside in communities where public transportation is largely unavailable. An AARP survey of people age 50 and over found that the majority of those surveyed did not have easy access to public transportation or even sidewalks outside their homes.

In Piscataquis County, a recent community needs assessment revealed that transportation access was a top concern for health and human service providers as well as the public at large.

In Old Town, Orono and Veazie, a soon-to-be-released transportation needs assessment commissioned by Gateway Seniors Without Walls and conducted by the UMaine Center on Aging reveals a lack of knowledge among older residents and their families about the array of transportation services provided; the lack of funding for personalized, nonmedical transportation; and both geographic and financial barriers that limit accessibility to existing services.

A more systematic approach to coordinating and publicizing existing transportation programs — both large and small, formal and informal — is badly needed and long overdue. To improve transportation for older adults, it will be necessary to find solutions that are cost-effective, capitalize on existing resources and build on the strong commitment to volunteerism that has enabled the state to accomplish a great deal with limited resources.

There are reasons to be hopeful. The KeepME Home initiative, a legislative proposal informed by significant community input, recognizes the critical role transportation services play in enabling citizens to grow old in their own homes. Additionally, the Maine Health Access Foundation has funded a number of “Thriving in Place” projects that involve community partnerships across Maine in better aligning resources in ways that support the ability of adults with chronic conditions and disabilities in living in their homes. Addressing transportation needs will be a key aspect of these efforts.

Given the recent focus on the special challenges and opportunities posed by Maine’s rural character and aging population, along with increasing community energy for helping older adults age in place, now is an opportune time to address systemically the critical role of transportation in supporting the health and well-being of our state’s older and disabled adults.

Lenard W. Kaye is a professor at the University of Maine School of Social Work and director of the University of Maine Center on Aging. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week. David C. Wihry is a research associate at the University of Maine Center on Aging.