Marcia Mermelstein understands that getting around is vital for older adults.
“I know that to be a healthy, happy, independent person who is aging in place in their own home, just going to the grocery store, the doctor’s office or the pharmacy is not enough,” said Mermelstein, 68. “People need to feel independent and have a life.”
That’s the idea behind ITN Gateway, a local affiliate of the national Independent Transportation Network. Previously limited to St. Charles, the 24/7 car service assisting seniors and the visually impaired began giving rides in parts of St. Louis County earlier this year. Mermelstein was part of the steering committee for the change.
She even gets behind the wheel herself.
“I felt that I needed to put my money where my mouth was after being involved in promoting this whole service so I’m working as a volunteer driver for the organization,” she said.
The service is a non-profit although it does charge for fares.
Though she’s only been involved in ITN for about two years, it isn’t her first experience helping seniors. The Kansas City native also serves as her municipality’s senior services coordinator. She also used to answer phones for Jewish Family & Children’s Services Elderlink line, part of a long history of work for synagogues and Jewish communal organizations since her arrival in St. Louis in the late 1970s to get her master’s in social work from Washington University. Jobs since then have included time spent as religious school director of education at United Hebrew and day camp and family education director at B’nai Amoona where she is still a member though she attends services at various synagogues around the area.
Tell me about your involvement with ITN.
They have been functioning out in St. Charles for about eight years now, I think. It is a national organization started on the East Coast. There are different offices around the country... There was a decision a couple of years ago that they wanted to expand the service into St. Louis County. I was recruited to be a member of that steering committee. It does not do anything else other than provide transportation for older adults over the age of 60 and people who have vision impairments.
Why is ITN different than other providers or just calling an Uber?
I can tell you that there are some other services that exist in St. Louis right now. They all serve a purpose and I don’t want to be critical of any of them. But this new service provides lots of options that the others do not. The other (free) services that function only (do so) on weekdays. They only function during certain hours and they only take people to what are determined to be necessary appointments. That means grocery stores, doctor visits, hospitals, food pantries.
Where does ITN serve?
It is not comprehensive of all of St. Louis County. I want to make sure people know that it is based on ZIP code. It is really based on the central corridor area. It goes from approximately Manchester to approximately Page and from Skinker out into Wildwood. That’s the service area for now. But the goal is to expand it into all of St. Louis County.
Are there other qualities that distinguish ITN?
One major thing that ITN offers that none of the other services offer is door-through-door, arm-through-arm service. That is huge. All the others, including Uber, including cabs, including services that are specifically designed for older people, the car shows up outside your door and you are expected to get yourself out of the house, down the steps and down the sidewalk and into the car. ITN drivers are trained to know that part of their job is to go up to the door, knock and offer assistance if needed, offer to put a walker or cane in the car. If someone goes to the grocery store or mall and has shopping bags, they’re supposed to be offering assistance with those. They make sure they escort that person back to their front door and make sure they are safely there. That is a huge asset for somebody who does need that assistance.
I understand that the issue of older drivers came up quite frequently in your work with Elderlink.
One of the probably top three topics that came up in phone calls when people called that line was transportation for older adults. It was either older adults themselves calling saying they needed rides or it was family members of older adults who were concerned and wanted their parents to give up their keys or drive less and wanted to know what the choices were.
For more information on ITN Gateway or to learn how to volunteer to drive for the service, visit www.itngateway.org or call 314-724-2117.