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.