Rideshare without the smartphone?


At 84, Betty Luce of Torrance, California didn’t feel comfortable driving at night anymore, but that didn’t squelch her desire to go to the movies with her girlfriends, who were also reluctant behind the wheel after dark. Luce asked her grandson, Justin Boogaard, if she could please have the phone number for Uber.

She’d seen Boogaard come and go with ridesharing enough to know about it as an option—but she didn’t understand that a smartphone was a necessary part of the equation.

The young UCLA business economics graduate knew his grandmother’s friends who did carry smartphones fumbled with the technology, often asking him for help.

This experience around older people sparked Boogaard’s eureka moment. Along with his friend, David Lung, he set out to create a decidedly low-tech solution that allowed his grandmother to use this modern convenience with her landline. They called it Go Go Grandparent.

Users of the service dial a toll-free number that interfaces with both Uber and Lyft.  The caller receives, via voice, the same information about the driver assigned to them that they would if they used the app—license plate, make and model of the car that’ll pick them up, the name of the driver—as well as a warning phone call two minutes before the car arrives to alert step them to step outside.

The driver, in return, receives an alert that they’ll be picking up a GoGo Grandparent client.

The cost of the service is paid by the passenger, a 19-cent per mile fee added to the cost of the ride.

Anyone who has deigned to advise an older adult to “just get a smartphone” as they face the loss of their ability to drive knows how problematic this request can be. Many seniors are either reluctant or downright disinterested in adopting the new technology, and annoyed at the suggestion that purchasing a pricey new phone is the answer to this new diminished mobility.

Justin Boogaard created a way for his grandmother, Betty Luce, to call an Uber without a smartphone

A Pew Research Center study showed that while smartphone adoption by people over the age of 65 has quadrupled over the last five years, it’s still wildly lower than that of the younger population. Besides, half of senior users say they not only need help setting the phones up—while a third say they feel little confidence with the devices.

Still, the fact remains that close to 7000 older adults in the United States are killed in traffic accidents each year, according to the Federal Transit Administration. With 40 million licensed older drivers on the road—a 50 percent increase from less than 20 years ago—and with 10-thousand people turning 65 each day, the accident reports are sure to increase, as is the need for alternative transportation.

While few of us imagine the day when we will willingly give up the keys, it’s a fact of life that our motor function and vision diminish over time. The lack of mobility has a cascading impact. The Community Transport Association says 3.6 million people miss crucial doctor’s appointments each year because they simply cannot get to them. Then, there’s the social isolation that comes with lack of mobility, increasingly acknowledged as wielding an intense physical as well as emotional toll.

Moving into a retirement home or over-55 community isn’t an insurance policy against feeling grounded. A variety of retirement home operators across the country have been striking partnerships with Lyft. At select residences run by behemoths in the industry, like Brookdale Senior Living and Sunshine Retirement Living, residents ask a concierge at their facilities to summon a ride, circumventing their need for a smartphone or a service like Go Go Grandparent. (The charges are added to their monthly bills.) Similarly, clients of the nationally franchised chain of elder care agencies, Comfort Keepers, call their local offices to have someone there arrange for a rideshare pick-up.   Users of the senior-focused mobile device company, GreatCall, have a similar arrangement.

Some drivers on rideshare boards like UberPeople.net complain about having to pick up older adults, some of whom need special assistance or move more slowly. Griped one driver who called himself “Driving For Profit,” “These passengers often require excessive help, I mean they are unable to even buckle their own seatbelt. I have no problem whatsoever providing service to anyone; but I resent having to position people in their wheelchair and push them into facility for their appointment.”

Others like “To Uber or Not To Uber” say they look forward to older riders:

Chatty old people are a thousand times more interesting than the phone-faced milennials who can barely muster a “how’s your day going”.

But even some chatty senior citizens are wary of stepping into a car driven by someone they don’t know, no matter how it’s conjured up.

When I tested Go Go Grandparent in south Florida recently, the driver who arrived at my mother’s house couldn’t have been more polite. He did seem a bit surprised to see that I wasn’t a senior citizen, as the indicator on his screen suggested I was going to be.

He dropped me at the home of my mother’s 85-year old smartphone-averse best friend who no longer drives at night.  Her children have been talking up the benefits of giving up the flip-phone for an iPhone.

Knowing she’ll never do that, I arrived and talked up this service, hoping to entice her to give it a try herself.

“Was he nice, dear? Was the car clean?” she asked. Women of her generation had been taught not to get into cars with men they didn’t know.  My late aunt wouldn’t even ride in a traditional taxi alone, no matter who was driving it.

When our visit was winding down, I picked up her landline to show her how it worked, and stood in her driveway waving gaily at the driver who arrived to ferry me home.

“Call and let me know you got home safe,” she said, almost worried to let me go. I knew when I told her the bill to travel 8 miles totaled $16.88, it didn’t matter how safe the ride was, or how sweet the driver. A child of the depression, she’d never spend that much money just to visit a friend.