The Lynx offers rides to people that the Penquis Community Action Program serves in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties. A Caribou nonprofit is trying to establish a similar service. Credit: Stuart Hedstrom / Piscataquis Observer

CARIBOU, Maine — A nonprofit organization is launching a volunteer ride service to help senior citizens get to medical appointments and social gatherings in an area of the state where public transportation is nonexistent or spotty at best.

The Caribou-based Center for the Advancement of Rural Living will launch the Caribou Area Ride Service in October. Volunteer drivers will use their own vehicles to take seniors to medical appointments, grocery stores, recreational and social events and other errands.

While basing its program on similar ones in other areas of the state such as Bangor, organizers hope that CARS will serve as a model for other Aroostook towns looking to better connect seniors to local services.

Transportation for seniors is crucial in Aroostook, where 24 percent of that population rely on family or friends to drive them because they cannot afford other services such as taxi cabs, according to a 2019 study from the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Policy. Sixty five percent of surveyed seniors who lacked reliable transportation said there were no public services in their regions.

Aroostook’s lack of consistent public transportation also complicates matters.

While Aroostook Regional Transportation System provides bus service to eligible seniors and people with disabilities, its schedule finds it in certain towns only on select days. Presque Isle, the city closest to Caribou, launched a general public bus service in 2019, but that program shuttered soon after the COVID-19 lockdown.

Aroostook Agency on Aging, a nonprofit that serves the entire county, had its own volunteer ride program that ended five years ago due to a lack of grant funding.

Several Presque Isle-based taxi services offer rides to Caribou but many seniors cannot afford the fees, said Center for the Advancement of Rural Living project manager Karen Gorman. And while there are local Uber and Lyft drivers, the round-trip costs are often too much for seniors.

“Ride share services [like CARS] fill the gap for elderly people who are on fixed incomes or those who are unable to use (Aroostook Regional Transportation System),” Gorman said.

The Center for the Advancement of Rural Living will use money through the state’s Community Development Block Grant to operate CARS as a one-year pilot program. For now, CARS will be in Caribou only, but with potential for expansion if the service proves popular.

So far the center has recruited six volunteers. Drivers will receive mileage reimbursement and any senior who requests rides must register as a member of CARS. The pilot program, to be funded through July 2023, will focus on seniors ages 65 and older and/or those who have visual impairments.

Riders must call the center three days in advance to be connected with a volunteer. They will pay a $4 round-trip fee, though the plan is to recruit community sponsors to cover some of those costs.

CARS is modeled after similar services in Maine, including the Kennebunk-based Friends in Service Helping, or FISH, which takes seniors from Kennebunk, Arundel and Kennebunkport to medical appointments. A total of 121 FISH drivers provide around 30 rides per month, though the number varies, according to program administrator Dori Lam.

“We have a lot of repeat customers, especially seniors who can no longer drive but need to get to appointments in Portland or Portsmouth,” Lam said.

While the FISH territory is closer to metropolitan Maine, the Bangor-based Penquis, a community action program, serves the more rural regions of Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.

Penquis’ program is not exclusive to seniors, but at least 40 percent of daily trips are requested by people ages 55 or older, said volunteer coordinator Jessica Butler. Penquis has 98 volunteer drivers.

“I’ve most often seen people in the 60- to 80-year-old crowd,” Butler said. “There are a lot of rural communities outside Bangor and some seniors don’t have the transportation to get into the city.”

Though organizers of CARS have not yet signed up drivers, conversations with local senior organizations and advocates have persuaded them that the need for reliable transportation exists.

As a former employee of Aroostook Agency on Aging, CARS project coordinator Sharon Berz has seen firsthand how transportation not only helps seniors access services but also improves their quality of life.

“It lowers their depression. It gets them outside of their home and making friends,” Berz said. “I think we’re going to see an improved quality of life [for seniors].”