SALT LAKE CITY — Nancy Kearl glanced up and down the tracks, watching carefully for the eastbound train. One hand kept a tight hold on a small, red grocery caddy by her side.
"The trains stop and start really fast," she said. "But as long as you can get a place to hang on to and keep a hold of your cart, you do OK."
On Tuesday, Kearl and more than a dozen senior citizens waited restlessly at the TRAX station on 400 South, a rail station close to their senior housing at Wasatch Manor.
The senior citizens and housing staff were going to a grocery store down the street. And they were traveling by public transit, a formidable feat for a group coming by walkers and wheelchairs.
"The first week I was a little bit worried about how they would handle it, but by the second week I was very confident," said Seung Hong, one of the housing volunteers. "It’s a very good opportunity for them to get out from their comfort zones."
The trip to the grocery store was part of the pilot program Transit Together Grocery, started by Salt Lake County Aging and Adult Services. Program manager Joey McNamee said the weekly trips help senior citizens keep up their independence while living at senior residences.
"Transportation and housing are two of the biggest needs that we hear over and over again of seniors in Salt Lake County," she said. "Here, we’ve had a chance to try and help make transit more accessible."
Before the pilot program, senior citizenss traveled to a store once a week in a van provided by Rides for Wellness.
The Transit Together Grocery program was developed by Janet Frick, president of the Utah Aging Alliance and volunteer coordinator for Rides for Wellness. Her idea was selected as one of 88 "quick action" projects sponsored by the AARP Community Challenge 2017 grant. The Aging and Adult Services division matched the $4,500 AARP grant funding.
"I wanted to try to build some independence within their residential community and expand their social environment," Frick said.
Wasatch Manor residents Tom and Donni Mitchell are both blind. Though they have traveled on public transit before, they agreed the program helped them learn where the grocery store was relative to their apartment.
"Now I know how to get there and get back safely," Donni Mitchell said. "I think now I can get to the store and get back by myself, which is a big success."
"Everybody goes shopping," Tom Mitchell said. "The only difference between us and normal people is some of us are old, some of us are disabled, and some of us are old and disabled. We just do some things in a different way."
Residents at Wasatch Manor and Friendship Manor in Salt Lake City traveled to the grocery store four times during the month of September, Frick said. The grant provided funding for transit passes and grocery caddies for program participants.
After the pilot program ends in September, Frick plans to gather feedback from residents and compile information about implementing the program long term.
The volunteers faced a few obstacles helping the senior citizens travel from their homes to the store Tuesday. McNamee and other volunteers continuously kept a head count, making sure no one was left on a train or at a station.
They also made sure no walkers are stuck in the tracks, as it turns out that the wheels of a walker fit perfectly into the narrow TRAX rail lines.
Regardless of the minor problems, McNamee said she's hopeful the project will be a permanent program at the senior homes.
"This way, folks have options," McNamee said. "We’ve seen a difference over the weeks in the level of comfort of the whole group."