Door-to-door service, never having to wait outside, GPS tracking: Seniors get on Uber

For her weekly trip to the hairdresser, Frances Pliskin, 90, gets an assist from an Uber driver in Cherry Hill.

Frances Pliskin had to stop driving over the summer. But Pliskin, 90, still needed to get to and from her weekly hairdresser appointments and bridge group, monthly dinner date at the Westin Club, and to visit with friends.

"I have a balance problem and I use a walker, and my doctor felt it was in my best interest and the people on the road if I didn't drive," Pliskin, of Cherry Hill, said. "Obviously, that meant taking away my independence."

Enter Uber. Or, in this case, S-Uber.

In a marketing attempt to appeal to seniors, the goal of S-Uber - a collaboration between the driving app and three Jewish groups in Cherry Hill - is to break barriers and demystify the technology for South Jersey residents 60 and older.

Two training sessions, essentially Uber 101, were held in September at the Katz JCC - one of the collaborators - and at the Lions Gate retirement community. More than 100 people, including Pliskin, got instruction on how to download and use the app, enter payment information, call for a ride, and recognize the car and driver who picks them up. Uber representatives also explained its carpooling component, where sharing a ride can keep costs lower. More training sessions will likely follow this month.

"All of our agencies have a senior population that is desperately in need of independent transportation," said Hope Morgan, president of the board of Samost Jewish Family and Children's Service of Southern New Jersey, one of the groups heading the trainings.

Her organization has volunteers to drive seniors to doctor's appointments, and Sen-Han Transit in Camden County, NJ Transit's Access Link for the disabled, and some federal transportation options exist for this population. But Uber will get you anywhere, really, anytime you ask - not just to doctor's appointments, but to the movies, out to dinner, or a wedding in Philadelphia, for example.

"In my 30-plus years in this field, transportation has always been an issue, and Uber is a viable option," said Marcy Weiner Lahav, adult cultural and Judaic director at Katz JCC. "I get that with the transportation that's out there, medical transport is a priority. Physical health is one thing, but I'm all about mental health and social health, and transportation is the key."

Although there are no discounts being offered specifically to seniors (outside the usual coupon for a free trip up to $20 available for first-time users), the Uber app offers built-in safety measures that appeal to them: door-to-door service; never having to wait outside, because the app alerts you when your car arrives; GPS tracking. "You can share those map details while you're on the trip with an automated text message to anyone on your contact list that will give them a link to watch your trip in real time," said Uber spokesman Craig Ewer.

For Inge Bass, 85, of Marlton, the training was helpful in answering her questions and showing her the workings of the app. She recently used the service to get from her daughter's home in Maryland to the train station there.

"The Uber came within four or five minutes," she said. "Taxis aren't always reliable as far as time is concerned, and I feel safer knowing what car and driver to expect."

Still able to drive, Bass doesn't need the service locally, but she will use it to go to the Kimmel Center or Amtrak station in Philadelphia by accessing the app on her iPhone. For those without a smartphone or tablet, the training showed patrons how their children could use the app for them. Realizing that is a more cumbersome approach, the agencies involved - which also includes Jewish Senior Housing - are trying to raise money to buy used smartphones that it will donate.

Pliskin doesn't own a smartphone, but her children bought her an iPad, loaded the Uber app, and entered her payment details. Uncomfortable with giving out her credit card information, Pliskin uses PayPal tied to a bank account she uses only for Uber. She gets a statement that shows her the number of times she has used it and what it cost.

"The minute the drivers see I have a walker, they are particularly kind," she said.

The system isn't perfect - for the general public or for seniors. Twice, a driver was unable to find Pliskin's, which is within a strip mall.

"I was outside in the rain and had put the iPad away. So the driver was texting me, but I didn't know it," she said. That inconvenience aside, she appreciates the convenience.

"Without it, I'd be stuck," she said. "I have marvelous friends who pick me up, but how much can you ask them?"

For May Brill, 92, a veteran of World War II, nighttime veterans meetings are now a possibility with Uber. She also is president of a singles group, but "we don't meet in the evening because of transportation," she said. "A lot of people don't drive anymore after 4 o'clock."

Uber allows her to stay active, and staying active will keep her living longer, Brill said. "And, therefore, Uber will be a big help."

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