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How free Lyft rides can dramatically improve life for senior citizens

How free Lyft rides can dramatically improve life for senior citizens
[Photo: Søren Astrup Jørgensen/Unsplash]

On-demand car services can drastically improve the health of senior citizens, according to new preliminary data.

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At the USC’s 2018 Body Computing Conference this past Friday, researchers showed how unlimited free Lyft rides can improve quality of life by a whopping 90% for seniors. The research was part of a pilot program announced last fall between Lyft and the University of Southern California Center for Body Computing, which aimed to study and connect senior citizens with transportation. In collaboration with UnitedHealthcare, the AARP Foundation gave a $1 million grant to the Keck Medicine of USC to test the impact of providing free Lyft rides on the health of elderly USC patients within the greater Los Angeles area.

The goal was to see whether accessible transportation greatly affected later-in-life healthcare, socialization, and activity levels. While the final study will not be published until early next year, researchers released preliminary data about its current progress.

“It’s not just missing doctors’ appointments,” Leslie Saxon, executive director of the USC Center for Body Computing, previously told Fast Company. “What really determines survival in an aging population is socialization–it’s any trip out of the house, and how active you are. That is the No. 1 determinant of basically who lives and who dies.”

Several million senior citizens miss medical appointments each year due to a lack of accessible and affordable transportation, with no-show rates hovering at 30% for sub-specialty doctor appointments, according to a 2016 study. Transportation for America (T4 America) found that more than half of the U.S. non-driving population age 65 and over stays home on any given day because they don’t have transportation. They make fewer trips to the doctor (15%), to shop or eat out (59%), and for social, family, and religious activities (65%) than drivers in the same age group.

There’s also the issue of family burden. Providing transportation to a loved one takes a toll on younger generations who aren’t afforded the flexibility to tend to a parent’s medical needs.

“It often results in this hidden family dysfunction and cost where the child is taking off work to take the parent to [the doctor],” Saxon said on Friday. “It creates a lot of dynamics that aren’t comfortable for anyone.”

The Lyft program outfitted 150 participants with wearable devices to track behavior patterns as well as offered app-use training. There was also a concierge-style phone number participants could call for pickups, in case they were uncomfortable with smartphones.

USC Keck School of Medicine research coordinator Rebecca Ebert explained that the majority of participants were unfamiliar or afraid of not just relying on the on-demand car service, but using a smartphone.

They were all over the age of 60 and living with chronic conditions, and hailing from diverse backgrounds and income levels within L.A. Most lived alone and were either retired, unable to work, or on disability. The average age was 71, with the oldest being 92 years old. All had a transportation barrier.

For three months, subjects had unlimited Lyft ride access to whatever they needed, with a strong emphasis on doctor’s appointments. In terms of medical conditions, 49% needed access to internal medicine specialists (with a quarter of those receiving cardiovascular care) followed by 26% for surgery or surgical followups. There were also those who visited pain management therapists, cancer specialists, and psychiatrists, among others.

Following 4,806 free Lyft rides, researchers found that subjects took an average of one ride a day, ranging at about $20 for an average of 14 miles. The study’s preliminary findings reported a 35% increase in activity (based on steps taken) from baseline to ride access.

These subjects didn’t just go see their doctor; they began visiting friends, family, going out to the movies. In fact, 90% of patients said the free rides had a “positive impact” on their quality of life, with 68% conceding it made it easier to travel to medical visits. They started going out more: 74% said it increased their social visits. The Lyft users took double the amount of rides as those who relied on concierge services (who were also included in the study).

Meanwhile, 97% said they were (likely much to their grandchildren’s relief) more comfortable using their smartphone. “Our patients embraced the technology,” reports Ebert.

While it’s obvious that such a service greatly helps senior citizens, it’s unclear how to broaden accessibility and affordability. Lyft confirms the participants’ ride use averaged to about $400 a month, which would be out of the price range for many retirees–and not covered by insurance policies. Lyft and USC plan to further the study and provide more in-depth economic analysis.

This isn’t the first time Lyft addressed elder needs. The company has partnered with several different organizations and companies, including AARP and various senior living communities, to improve their concierge call service. In 2017, Lyft partnered with Brookdale Senior Living, one of the largest operators of senior living facilities in the country. (In 2015, Uber also announced efforts to better bridge its product with aging populations.)

Throughout these partnerships, Lyft is gathering information on how its service can improve senior citizens’ standard of living.

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