The difficult task of traveling through predominantly rural and suburban South Jersey could become worse for the region’s senior citizens, a new report shows.
An extensive study by New Jersey Future shows there are few municipalities in South Jersey with adequate public transportation, making travel for seniors without cars difficult.
And in South Jersey, that means senior citizens face the choice of driving— something many feel less comfortable with as they age — and isolation.
Three communities did score well in the survey: Bridgeton, Ventnor and Wildwood.
The three municipalities have things in common: They are relatively small, have traditional street grid layouts and a variety of different destinations – from shopping to medical care – that are close to each other. Bridgeton and Ventnor also supplement senior citizen travel with shuttle services.
Officials in those municipalities say they want to keep their senior citizens on the move, and not just because they represent customers for downtown merchants.
In fact, town officials said they consider it a civic responsibility.
“There is no benefit in having them homebound all day, all week,” Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly said. “We need them out in the public. We need to make it so they can socialize and be part of the life blood of the city.”
That extends to working with Cumberland County government to transport Bridgeton senior citizens to a spring prom and a fall dance that Kelly throws every year. The events draw a capacity crowd.
Lou Myerowitz, who has helped run Ventnor’s senior citizen shuttle for 17 years, said many of the senior citizens who use the service need help in keeping active.
“They certainly can’t move on their own,” said the 84-year-old Myerowitz. “They live by themselves or with a family that can’t spend time taking them where they want to go. These are people who want to go somewhere. They don’t have the facility for going to those places by other means, cabs or even public transportation.”
Sometimes, the job is not easy. Ventnor’s bus recently blew its transmission, and Myerowitz had to scramble to find ways of moving the city’s senior citizens through the municipality and neighboring Margate and Longport.
Cumberland County government eventually provided a bus and a driver.
That was good for senior citizens including Mary Walsh, 82, and Rose Gravina, 77, who live at the Shalom House independent-living facility in Ventnor. They depend on the shuttle for shopping and trips to the doctor.
“I don’t drive,” Walsh said. “I take this two or three times a week. It keeps me moving. It keeps the walls from closing in.”
Gravina said she would like to walk, but it’s too far between Shalom House and her destinations. She relies on the shuttle to keep her connected with the community.
“It’s great,” Gravina said.
New Jersey Future is an organization that lobbies for smarter development throughout the state. That includes finding better ways to help senior citizens navigate their way throughout New Jersey.
The organization said its survey shows while New Jersey’s population increased by almost 15 percent from 1990 to 2012, the number of people age 55 to 65 increased by 54 percent, while the number of those age 65 to 74 increased by almost 14 percent.
Meanwhile, the state’s number of residents older than 85 nearly doubled.
“The conclusions of the report are clear,” New Jersey Future researchers wrote. “As New Jersey’s population ages, many residents will find themselves living in areas that are not well equipped to accommodate their changing needs. Those people not able to relocate will face the possibility of increasing social isolation and need for assistance. For those … municipalities that want to retain their residents as they grow older, doing nothing will not be an option.”
New Jersey Future scored municipalities by destinations per square mile, downtown destinations, destination accessibility by vehicle and walking, and access to public transportation.
Significant sections of South Jersey scored badly in those areas, including:
— In Cumberland County, Deerfield, Downe, Greenwich, Hopewell and Stow Creek townships and Shiloh. Those municipalities are rural and make up about 30 percent of the county’s 483 square miles.
— Egg Harbor Township, an Atlantic County municipality with significant commercial areas, also scored poorly in all four of the metrics.
The scores for some other South Jersey municipalities could have been better if not for the region’s geography, New Jersey Future Research Director Tim Evans said.
For instance, Atlantic City’s scores are skewed because researchers had to include large swaths of wetlands that are within its boundaries, Evans said. Scores for Hammonton, Millville and Vineland were lower than expected because, while they all have core downtowns, they also have significant farming and rural areas, he said.
South Jersey’s sprawling makeup is its weakness in providing better senior citizen mobility, Evans said.
“It’s not nearly as developed, as urbanized, as North Jersey,” he said. “The more densely populated you are, the more efficiently you can run public transportation.”
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