Staying at home but still getting about
Ann Norris doesn’t want to leave the home she loves in the bush. The 80-year-old says she wants to grow old in the small town of Kilkivan, three hours north of Brisbane, Queensland. “I will not go to any of those places,” Norris says. “I don’t care who says [what], I will die here.”
However, with no public transport and no taxi or uber service, doing simple tasks independently is almost impossible for the elderly who cannot drive. She’s one of a growing number of seniors living in rural communities throughout Australia facing the prospect of having to leave their friends behind and move to a larger town and/or to an aged care facility.
“It’s the grocery shopping and that sort of thing,” Norris says. “I’ve been independent up until now and haven’t needed [help] . . . but I do now.”
That help now rolls in on four wheels and is affectionately known as the KilkiVAN, a minibus service run entirely by volunteers that takes Kilkivan’s elderly residents anywhere from the local tavern to the nearest shopping centre 40km away in Gympie.
Kilkivan and District Community Care Association president Rosie Fitzgerald has lived in Kilkivan all her life and says she was determined to find ways to help her ageing community stay put. “I identified four key things we needed to make this community a great place to age in place, and the first was community transport . . . because we have no community transport of any sort,” she notes. “No taxi, no uber, no community bus, nothing. So, people who had restricted licences or had lost their licences for health issues were stranded, effectively.”
Fitzgerald sought help from a group of Queensland University of Technology (QUT) business students, who devised a business model for the KilkiVAN. Their lecturer and researcher Udo Gottlieb says the one-size-fits-all service model could be replicated elsewhere where services were lacking.
“What we have shown here is a great example that we don’t need to come up with an overarching solution that is a retirement village, with a GP office, and all of that,” Gottlieb says. “Let’s start small. Let’s bring the basic services that rural communities need and build on that.”
“Once you start on that community bus and show a feasible business case that is viable over the years — and that is the plan here — then you will find the financial backers to get the resources required into those towns,” he adds.
The KilkiVAN was purchased with a Queensland government grant. Running costs are barely met by the minimal fees charged to passengers. The longest trip to Gympie, about 40 minutes away, costs A$20 return, but a trip to the local pub on Fridays is free to “ensure maximum social inclusion” for those living alone. “We want to keep [fees] as low cost as possible so that no one is excluded from using it,” Fitzgerald says.
Like Gottlieb, Fitzgerald hopes the KilkiVAN model will catch on and bring attention to the lack of basic services available to the elderly outside larger centres.
“We’re here within an hour-and-a-half of Noosa’s main beach, two-and-a-half hours of Brisbane’s international airport, and yet we find ourselves without core services that should be a human right in a society like ours,” she says. “I would challenge all politicians, all councils everywhere, to have a look at their local communities and see how they can step up and support their seniors . . . because I think it’s a very overlooked cohort, and it's a growing cohort.”
Gottlieb argues keeping older people at home for longer benefits small towns and the elderly alike. “[It’s] having people staying in the community, spending money in the community, paying taxes in the community,” he notes. “On the other hand, it is also about the mental wellbeing of people living in the community.”
TOP Ann Norris
ABOVE Rosie Fitzgerald
PHOTOS ABC Wide Bay/Lucy Loram