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Obstacles to mobility accelerating the social isolation of the elderly


Giving up on the idea of being able to get from A to B is one thing people fear when they start to lose their faculties. It is hard to argue with them, since nearly 50% of people aged over 75 experience difficulties linked to mobility, such as no longer having a car, the increasingly complex nature of urban spaces and a lack of knowledge about public transport. As a result, one in three elderly people say they regularly don’t leave the house for more than 24 hours in a row.

Social isolation

From the elderly woman who has never driven, to the old man who can no longer make out road signs, there are many people who find themselves without transport solutions in their twilight years. Scarcely 5% of senior citizens use public transport to get around. “This incapacity leads elderly people to develop a negative vision of themselves and to consider themselves a burden on society, which in turn also exposes them to the risk of depression,” says Valérie Dreyfuss, Managing Director of French think tank Laboratoire de la mobilité inclusive. “In an ageing society where family ties are a vital resource for the most vulnerable people, it’s time to decide what kind of society we want to move towards”. Adding to the urgency is the fact that, as of 2020, more than one‑third of the population will be over 60 years old. Offering everybody the chance to remain mobile and independent has therefore become a public health issue.

Multiple obstacles to senior mobility

According to a study by the Laboratoire de la mobilité inclusive, elderly people who want to travel around are faced with a variety of difficulties. Among people aged over 60, the biggest impact on mobility is their standard of living, given that 50% of people aged over 75 have income of less than €958 per month. Then there are geographical issues, including unsuitable urban furniture or total lack thereof, hard-to-navigate pavements and insufficiently accessible public transport. The elderly also face social hurdles, such as isolation and loss of independence, and even physiological difficulties, including a lack of balance or trouble walking. We therefore need to rethink infrastructure, transport services and home design to adapt them to the next chapter of people’s lives.

Remaining independent

To ensure that people learn about mobility all throughout their lives, Wimoov, a non-profit organisation, offers a training programme for individuals based on its 27 mobility platforms spread throughout France. It begins with an individual appraisal to discern what difficulties the person may be having, such as lack of awareness regarding public transport or fear of what are perceived to be dangerous journeys.

Thanks to these evaluations, counsellors are able to guide vulnerable people towards existing solutions. For example, they might accompany an elderly person and show them how to take the bus. Together, they might also study the options for going to the seniors’ club or to the doctor, such as taking the train or getting back on a bicycle. Using Google Maps or a GPS and understanding timetables on a display board are just some of the other skills learnt or refreshed by the 11,000 people involved across the different regions. “Thanks to digital tools, we hope we’ll soon be able to triple the amount of people helped by this service” says Fabien Bénito, head of senior mobility at Wimoov.

Community car sharing in the countryside

A total of 65% of elderly people live in rural or suburban areas where dependence on cars is very high. Yet, in these regions, giving up driving because of old age can have serious consequences. To allow the elderly to benefit from other people’s journeys, French start-up Atchoum has created a system of rural car sharing which relies on the kindness of others. Elderly people request car sharing simply by making a phone call to a reservation centre, which is also based on community spirit. Drivers are notified by text or by email, and when the journey is accepted, the elderly person is informed by telephone. “We have seen real success among younger retired people who want to dedicate part of their time to their elders,” says Fabrice Leblon, the company co-founder, who himself comes from a small village between Mulhouse and Belfort. “The drivers can provide this service without committing themselves to extremely time-consuming volunteer work.” In exchange, they are paid 35 euro cents per kilometre. “But for them it’s not about the money.” Indeed, 80% of countryside journeys are less than 3 kilometres. Some ten municipalities have already been enticed by this system, which is highly cost effective, at around €50 per month for a community of 2,000 people.

Even if mastering digital tools can remove the need for mobility by bringing services to people, such as with telemedicine, online purchases or delivered meals, being able to leave the house seems to be the only way to put the brakes on the loss of independence and encourage people to continue living at home.


Sources: Study on mobility among the elderly (French only) by the Laboratoire de la mobilité inclusive

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