For Alfred Cote, Simi Valley's senior bus is more than a ride--it's a lifeline.
The 87-year-old says a cheerful hello to the other passengers as they board. He encourages them to sing during the hourlong ride to the senior center, a route that winds around Simi's streets and picks up eight passengers.
On one occasion, he even asks to hold the thin hands of his seat neighbor, a 92-year-old named Josephine.
"Can I warm your hands for you?" he asks, peering over at her. "You didn't say goodbye to me last Thursday, were you feeling all right?"
Life is not easy for Cote, he said, now that he's aging, can't drive and his eyesight is failing.
Without a car, Cote--who is a bit hard of hearing but mentally alert--is dependent on friends' generosity, his family's support and the city Dial-a-Ride service. And he is not alone.
A retired engineering inspector, Cote is like thousands of other Ventura County seniors who have passed one of life's most wrenching milestones--giving up the keys to the car.
One of the great blows of aging is the loss of mobility. Especially in Southern California, where mass transit is minimal, taxis are expensive and distances are great.
"When I gave up driving, it was like giving up my right arm," he said of his decision nearly 11 years ago.
Now walking and riding the bus are how Cote gets around.
He does it cheerfully. But the surrender of a treasured adult privilege is never easy. And sometimes it isn't even voluntary.
Some seniors stop driving at their family's admonitions, others have a car accident or medical condition that leaves them physically unfit, and many grow afraid of the road because of fading eyesight or high speeds.
Whatever the reason, about half of the 105,000 seniors living in Ventura County don't have driver's licenses, in an area of the nation known for its love affair with the automobile.
The emotional adjustments are difficult. Without transportation, such routine errands as shopping can turn into insurmountable hurdles. Many seniors choose to stay home until a family member can run to the market, instead of risking being stranded in the dark waiting for a bus.
Or they simply go without.
Forget outings to the beach or visiting family members out of town; it's a chore just to get to the doctor.
Many of Ventura County's senior citizens rely on their families for most of their needs. But younger family members, with ever pressing schedules and dependents of their own, often don't have time to drive to a senior center twice a day, take beloved parents to the movies or drive into Los Angeles County to a hospital in Woodland Hills.
Seniors instead count on the charity of friends, an interconnected web of Dial-a-Ride bus services and other community transportation services.
Every local city except Moorpark has a curb-to-curb Dial-a-Ride service that will take seniors anywhere they want within a certain area, as long as they call ahead to make reservations.
For many, Dial-a-Ride works. For some it's not enough. Others don't even know about it. People who want to use the service must be disabled or at least 60 to 65 years old, depending on the community. There is no income requirement.
The fee is small, less than $2 each way, but passengers have a restricted territory. Sometimes the bus is already booked, so a request is turned down. Some programs don't operate on weekends, and service stops in the evening.
But for a lot of seniors, Dial-a-Ride is the only viable alternative, so they schedule trips to the market and the doctor weeks in advance, sometimes selecting times that accommodate the bus service.
For seniors like Billie Davila, focusing on what she has, not on what she doesn't have, is the best way to live a full life.
The 75-year-old stopped driving five years ago when she had a stroke. Now she lives with her daughter in Simi Valley and uses Dial-a-Ride about four times a week to get back and forth to the senior center near City Hall, her main social outlet.
She fights the quiet battle against time and immobility with grace and determination--not dwelling on the things she can no longer do.
One recent Wednesday morning, Davila proudly announced she was taking Dial-a-Ride five times that week because she had planned to catch lunch and a movie with a friend.
"Thank God for Dial-a-Ride," she said. "All the drivers are so nice to me. I don't know what I'd do without them."
Davila said she rarely misses driving because the bus gets her where she needs to go. She doesn't even remember the last time she sat behind a wheel.
"The only time I miss it is sometimes I want to go to the market and I can't," she said. Her daughter does the shopping for her now.
The Dial-a-Ride service in Simi Valley has been helping seniors since 1976, according to Hibbie Hayslett, management analyst for Simi Valley Transit. He said there was a jump in ridership about five years ago, and it continues to grow.
"Our success is like what happens with a good movie--people talk about it. They might use us more than once a week. There is no formula to it that I can think of," he said of the shuttle, which provides about 3,000 rides a month.
"Everyone is on the right frequency," he said. "People are wanting it and the city is understanding and it is matching well." About 80% of the cost of the service is funded by a federal transportation grant. Last year, the grant was $418,000.
At 84, Florence Makin looks stylish in a pair of white Nike Air shoes and a jogging suit. She lives comfortably without a car in what would be a college dormitory--if the residents were about 65 years younger.
Friends live in rooms along long halls. A key card opens the building's front door. A common room with tables creates the comfortable feel of a home away from home.
Makin has lived at Ventura Silver Crest apartments on the city's east side for seven years. She made the transition from driving, which she said "spoiled" her, to public transportation many years ago. "If I ever have any trouble with the SCAT thing, I just get a taxi," she said.
SCAT Access is a curb-to-curb service for seniors and the disabled operating in the west county. It started several months ago and integrated unconnected bus service in Ojai, Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Ventura.
She lives down the hall from her sister, Ruthie, and has time to knit, crochet and paint. The fruits of her hobby are displayed around her room.
"To go from driving to walking to learning the bus was difficult, especially because my memory isn't what it used to be," she said. So Makin keeps a calendar on the refrigerator door and dutifully fills it in when plans arise.
She said SCAT Access gets her where she needs to go. And besides, her 78-year-old sister has a car, in case of emergency.
But for all the enthusiastic bus riders, there are seniors left behind--unaware of available services or too frail to get to the curb where the bus picks up riders.
Arienne Telias, program planner for the Area Agency on Aging in Ventura, said that with the oldest baby boomers seven years from becoming seniors, there needs to be more transportation services and more awareness.
"Without transportation, seniors feel lonely and isolated and helpless. Transportation allows people to stay active and in touch with others," she said. "But the problem is, how do you get a service to people who don't know it exists?"
Elmer Smith is one of those people.
He says he would be capable of driving, if only he could look at the road.
An accident in February 1999 left the bones in his neck shattered and Smith unable to lift his head from his chest. In order to look forward, he needs to sit down and slouch backward.
"There's a lot of talk about transportation, but no service," he said from behind big glasses and tilted way back in a chair. "I'm an old stubborn man, and I get frustrated when things don't go right."
He cited some of the problems he has faced with transportation services in the county--busy phone lines, being on hold for a long time, being charged too much by a taxi or not being picked up on time.
So Smith doesn't go out much. And he doesn't go to the doctor as often as he should, because it's too much of a hassle to get there.
Art Kinne, a bus activist in Ventura who lives at the Silver Crest Apartments, said the area's bus services are improving, but he thinks it's wrong to lump seniors like him in with disabled riders of all ages who need special services.
"I don't want to have to call them and ask permission to be picked up," said the 77-year-old, who still drives. "It hurts my dignity as someone who is self-sufficient. Just give me a fixed-route bus and I'll figure out how to get there."
Sue Munday, manager of senior and disabled programs with the county Transportation Commission, supports Kinne's position, saying seniors should not depend on customized Dial-a-Ride services exclusively.
"The transition in California seems to be from driving your own car to Dial-a-Ride," she said. "People back East are very aware of that intermediate step of fixed-route buses."
The fixed-route bus systems on both sides of the county are reliable, but riders often complain that buses take too long or do not go exactly where they need to go.
Munday said the solution for most seniors is to integrate their use of the fixed-route and the Dial-a-Ride services so people have the flexibility of a set schedule, along with the special accommodations of Dial-a-Ride.
Sandie Moore, director of a Thousand Oaks-based program called Caring Neighbors, which provides an assortment of services to Ventura County seniors, said she receives more requests for transportation than for any other service.
"Many times Dial-a-Ride is full or they are too ill and they can't wait on the corner for someone to come and get them," she said.
The volunteers in Moore's program take seniors to the doctor and grocery shopping for free. Sometimes the request is for a ride to the cemetery or a friend's house.
Kathryn O. Medley, senior services coordinator for the city of Simi Valley, said a primary transportation complaint of seniors is a bus that doesn't leave the city's borders.
"This is especially a problem for those who want to go outside Simi to Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks," she said. "That ride is not possible through Simi Valley Dial-a-Ride."
She said some seniors may want to take VISTA, a countywide bus service, but it's not practical. "It might take two hours for someone to get from Simi to T.O., and there are seniors who can't tolerate that exhausting of a trip."
And the alternative may be too costly. Yellow Cab, for example, would charge nearly $20 each way for a ride from central Simi Valley to Los Robles Regional Medical Center.
Munday, with the Transportation Commission, said all riders have problems getting from one city to another and from this area to Santa Barbara or Los Angeles counties.
"Regional mobility is becoming more important than local mobility, and that is our top concern," she said, which means expanding existing bus routes beyond city and county borders.
With baby boomers knocking on the door of old age and basic services leaving people wanting, the commission has its work cut out for it, she said.
"This generation will not be denied; it's either you let me drive my car or you find a way to get me from here to there," she said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Dial-a-Ride services transport seniors anywhere within their cities at a nominal cost. Riders should call about one week in advance to guarantee travel times and dates. The numbers listed below provide transportation information.
* Camarillo: (800) 438-1112
* Fillmore / Piru: 524-2319
* Ojai, Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Ventura: 485-2319 / 649-4421
* Santa Paula: 933-2267
* Simi Valley: 583-6464
* Thousand Oaks: 449-2408