Nearly every day, one of the drivers for the Johnson County Senior Services transportation service has to veer off course.

A patient who needs taken to life-saving dialysis is ill and not ready to make the trip on time, so schedules needs shuffled.

Another day, a woman needs an emergency trip so she can say goodbye to her son, who is near-death.

The drivers go straight to the front doors of the county’s elderly, helping them get on board and taking the residents who would in many cases otherwise be home-bound to crucial medical appointments, the grocery store or food pantry or social activities that keep them connected to exercise and friends.

Kimberly Smith, executive director of Johnson County Senior Services, still recalls with vivid detail the persistence of the driver who several years ago wouldn’t give up on a patient that needed picked up. When the woman didn’t answer the door, the Senior Services workers went to the back of the house and knocked on windows, trying to make sure the resident was OK.

Police officers had to enter the home and found the elderly woman suffering from a medical episode. Doctors later said she had been in distress for 24 hours and would have likely died within minutes, Smith said.

But she lived.

Providing transportation for the elderly, sick, needy or vulnerable residents of Johnson County is a paramount service, Smith said.

Senior services, a United Way of Johnson County agency, has been providing free transportation for seniors for 38 years, and it is the most in-demand service of the organization. Getting these residents to crucial appointments is non-negotiable, but the need is going up, Smith said.

In 2016, drivers took elderly residents on more than 13,000 one-way trips.

“People die if we don’t do what we do,” Smith said.

Every month, 700 to 1,000 elderly residents get transportation through Johnson County Senior Services. But 50 to 100 elderly residents are on a waiting list for transportation, Smith said.

“The needs are just great,” she said.

Annual fundraiser Dining in the Dark, conducted in August, raises money for senior services and the goal is to get more drivers and handicapped-accessible vans on the roads so the number of residents on the waiting list can go down, Smith said.

Currently, four vehicles are transporting residents Monday through Friday, but Smith hopes that enough money can be raised to at least get another vehicle on the road a couple of days a week. Taking one patient to dialysis for one year costs $7,000.

Senior Services also provides food for about 1,500 residents each month and finds durable medical equipment, such as wheelchairs and shower seats, for the county’s growing elderly population, or adults who are less than age 60 but have disabilities. The request for services from the organization has grown 60 percent in 48 months, Smith said. Overall, about 700 residents were helped in 2016.

The senior population growth in the county is staggering, and the needs of the residents must be met, she said.

“It’s just not OK for these folks to be suffering in silence in our community,” Smith said.

Because the drivers and Smith see the residents on a regular basis, they can connect them with community partners who can go to their homes to conduct fall risk assessments, watch for memory issues and detect any upset, anger or depression, Smith said.

Four drivers work every day, taking residents from homes, nursing homes, healthcare offices, senior centers, food pantries and stores. In some cases, they provide that crucial connection with friends and loved ones. Other times, residents need to receive chemotherapy or radiation.

Bargersville resident Joe Cunningham comes to the senior center via a senior services van several times a week and spends time with his brother and other friends. He’s not sure how he would get to the center if it wasn’t for the service.

Bessie Miller, a rural Franklin resident, lives with her family, but the other adults work, leaving Miller at home for the day. While she likes to read, she needs to come to Franklin’s Active Adult Center three times a week for exercise, devotions, special events or crafts and games.

“I love to read, but this gets you out,” Miller said. She’s been using the service weekly for four years.

“They are there to help you,” Miller said of the drivers and dispatcher. “They come right to your door, and do anything.”

At a glance

Johnson County Senior Services

Executive director: Kimberly Smith

Mission: Improve the quality of life for older residents by helping them maintain their independence, live with dignity, remain at home as long as possible and reduce isolation and loneliness.

Location: 731 S. State St., Franklin

Services: Free door-to-door transportation, food pantry, durable medical equipment, referrals to additional services and companion care

Donate: Donations to Johnson County Services can aid in operating costs, providing more transportation services or establishing a new facility. Give by contacting senior services at (317) 738-4544. Senior services is also a United Way of Johnson County agency, and donations can be made through the United Way by calling (317) 736-7840.

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Michele Holtkamp is editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at mholtkamp@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2774.