For three months earlier this year, a small, toaster-shaped vehicle shuttled residents around a 2-mile loop at a park in Cary, with stops that included the local senior center.
The vehicle had an automated wheelchair ramp and enough room for eight passengers and an attendant. But more notable was what was missing: a driver.
The fully electric autonomous vehicle—nicknamed CASSI, for Connected Autonomous Shuttle Supporting Innovation—was a pilot project of the town of Cary and the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
“People really seemed to like it,” says Brett Moraes, operations and programs supervisor for the Cary Senior Center.
Exploring the viability of self-driving vehicles and other alternative modes of transportation is one goal of a new state plan to better prepare North Carolina to support a rapidly growing number of older adults.
North Carolina’s 65-plus population rose by 41 percent from 2011 to 2021, compared with an 11 percent increase for those under 65, according to state demographic data. By 2031, there will be more North Carolinians 65 and older than under 18.
To help prepare for that shift, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) in May issued an executive order directing state agencies to work together on a multisector plan for aging, with the goal of making communities more livable for older adults.
North Carolina also recently became the 10th state to join the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. The network supports efforts to make areas more walkable, improve transit and promote affordable housing, among other goals.
As the population ages, the state needs to address all kinds of policies such as access to transportation, not just health and human services, says Joyce Massey-Smith, director of the state Division of Aging and Adult Services. To create the plan for aging, a group of about 100 stakeholders—including AARP representatives, family caregivers and health care providers—will develop recommendations, with the aim of sending them to the governor by the spring, she says.
Local age-friendly efforts
The group’s work follows successful initiatives in 14 North Carolina communities that are part of AARP’s age-friendly network.
For example, Rockingham County, in the north-central part of the state, has a robust rural public transportation system that includes on-demand transportation for older adults and an express van to the local clinic for veterans. The county is also working on a program to create an “age-friendly” designation for businesses that meet criteria such as having an accessible entrance.
“What we’re trying to do is create a barrier-free environment that enables people of all ages and abilities to visit shops and access spaces,” said Asheley Cooper, community outreach and development director for the nonprofit Aging, Disability & Transit Services of Rockingham County.
Other communities are building affordable senior housing, installing sidewalks and expanding high-speed internet access. The state’s plan for aging will look at how to build on those ideas, says Lisa Riegel, AARP North Carolina’s manager of advocacy and livable communities.
The governor’s executive order also calls for state agencies to look for ways to bolster the caregiving workforce and improve nutrition services for older adults, among other priorities.
To find resources for older adults, go to ncdhhs.gov/divisions and select Aging and Adult Services.
Michelle Crouch is a writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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This story is provided by AARP North Carolina. Visit the AARP North Carolina page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.
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