The Role of Transportation in Addressing Social Isolation in Older Adults

  • Source: NCMM
  • Date: 07/01/2020

NCMM investigated the hypothesis that a lack of transportation can be shown to be associated with incidences of social isolation among older adults; specifically, that a lack of mobility directly affects patterns of social engagement by dictating people’s access to resources, amenities, and socializing opportunities. A second part of that premise is that an improvement in older adults’ access to transportation services that fit their needs—with regard to affordability, convenience, and safety—will meaningfully increase their access to life-sustaining activities. The research focused on this question: How can public transportation be used as a preventive intervention tool to address the potentially harmful effects of social isolation among older adults? 

Background and Approach


Social isolation and loneliness are associated with poorer health and increased risk of mortality for older adults. Related to this, older adults who do access life-sustaining activities are likely to experience an improvement in their community connectedness as well as their overall health and well-being. 

As the proportion of older adults in American society increases, it is imperative that we design solutions to increase the continued integration of older adults into their community. Public transportation is one critical component of those solutions, especially for older adults who do not have access to private transportation or who are unable to drive. 

Recognizing the importance of this topic and the need to raise awareness on key related issues, the National Center for Mobility Management contracted with the University of Minnesota to prepare a research paper to inform future stakeholder engagement, programs, and policy. The University of Minnesota team used two data collection approaches: a literature review and key informant interviews. Based on these, we summarize key findings, showcase program examples, and offer recommendations for programmatic, policy, and research interventions to use public transportation to prevent and reduce social isolation and loneliness among older adults. 

Key Findings

  • Public transportation has a role in addressing social isolation and loneliness 
  • Older adults identified issues that shaped their use of public transportation options, such as accessibility; affordability; awareness of their existence and how to use them; limited flexibility of service, especially in rural areas; and constraints on using public transportation for social purposes. 
  • Differences exist in access to and use of public transportation across sociodemographic subpopulations of older adults (e.g., rurality, gender, age, income, disability status, ethnicity). 
  • Social isolation and loneliness are important to be addressed as health issues 
  • There is a lack of data and software tools to inform how the use of public transportation might currently be addressing the social needs and preferences of older adults and how it could do so in the future. 
  • Fragmentation of services (both among transportation providers and between transportation and other sectors) creates a need for expanded collaboration between providers and across sectors to fully meet the needs of older adults. 

More from the Knowledge Center:

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SeniorCare Inc. Medical Transportation Program

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Public & Senior Transportation

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On the Go: Enticing Seniors to Try Salina’s Public Transportation program began in 2022 as a partnership between the Salina Senior Center, OCCK Transportation and the Mobility Manager for North Central Kansas. The goal of the program is to increase the number of senior citizens using Salina’s public transportation system.

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County-wide Volunteer Driver Program

City of Pittsfield RSVP Program – Pittsfield, MA
Wheels for Wellness exemplifies two promising practices: cross-sector collaboration and building on existing assets. When deciding what type of transportation program to pilot, the partners selected a volunteer driver program because it built on what they identified to be the county’s assets: an older population, a high rate of car ownership, and a strong regional culture around looking out for each other. They then looked to existing volunteer driver programs in the region to see how they might scale these local and regional initiatives. A regional volunteer driver program run by an all-volunteer healthcare facility in Southern Berkshire County inspired them to serve the entire county. They then identified the Pittsfield RSVP program as having potential to scale up its operations.

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