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Empathy Is the Driver

Kind and aware — the story of Katherine Freund offers a clue to the key attributes that changemakers value.

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Katherine Freund is a petite woman with a big presence. When I first met her in 2012, she was seven years into her tenure as CEO of the Independent Transportation Network of America (ITNAmerica), the organization she founded in Portland, Maine, which had affiliates in 20 cities at the time. Her organization offers seniors the option to hand over ownership of their vehicles in exchange for ride credits that can be used to access a driver at any time, for any reason. ITN provides a way for older drivers to give up their car when the time is right, but it also serves as a platform for raising broader social awareness about the mobility challenges seniors and their families face.

I listened as Katherine described the high stakes accompanying that momentous decision to hand over one’s car keys. For many, a car represents independence, and I immediately understood the stress of suddenly having to rely upon others to access life’s needs and pleasures. I could also imagine the pressure that this transition would put on family and friends. What struck me the most was her characterization of this issue as an unseen problem that was troubling American households.

Katherine believes that every family should have a plan well in advance for addressing the needs and desires of aging drivers. This makes sense to me. When my father was approaching this difficult moment in his life, in the years just before I met Katherine, I really didn’t know how to talk to him about it. I didn’t have the tools to constructively discuss it with either of my parents. My mom, who was nine years younger than my dad (he has since passed), was balancing professional responsibilities just as he was requiring more frequent access to his doctors. My brother and I lived far away, so we couldn’t be much help.

It wasn’t a conversation we had ever anticipated as a family, and there were no good alternatives for him. Retiring along California’s more sparsely populated central coast, his car gave him the freedom to socialize and get to the places he enjoyed. Public transportation wasn’t readily available, and I don’t think he would have used it anyway, so his automobile was his connection to the wider world. These were issues that had to be on his mind, too, because he occasionally expressed a wish that he could have a driver to chauffeur him around and cater to his needs as an alternative to driving himself.

Katherine understood this dilemma well. “In areas with smaller populations, like your dad’s, a car is viewed as key to survival and for meeting basic needs,” she said. “In urban centers, there is a different kind of loss that goes with stepping onto a dirty bus to get where you want to go.”

Katherine saw that this script could be flipped. Her view was that when we came to a point in our lives we could no longer capably drive, we should have earned the right to rides with dignity—to be driven in a clean automobile by a caring attendant—and to remain engaged as full contributors in society.

That’s what the Independent Transportation Network offers. No more unplanned automobile maintenance costs, no more driving in stressful conditions, and no more worries about burdening friends and family if one doesn’t drive their own car. When seniors become members of the ITN and set up a Personal Transportation Account, they can trade in their cars for funds applied to their accounts toward future rides, while also helping ITN build a fleet. Trading a car for rides is not a requirement, however, as many ITN members or their adult children simply pay for their rides. ITN has a cadre of citizen-volunteers and part-time paid drivers who are available to meet the transportation needs of riders 24/7. As an incentive, volunteer drivers earn ride credits that they can either save for their own future needs or donate to help support lower-income seniors.

“Our drivers walk right up to the door and even offer to help,” Katherine told me, emphasizing her focus on the rider’s dignity.

Her account of the organization she had built was impressive, especially since her degree was in public policy, not business. But I struggled to focus on it, as I was concentrated on Katherine’s personal story, which had led her to this idea. In 1988, Katherine’s 3-year-old son suffered a traumatic brain injury after running into the street and being struck by a driver in his mid-80s. The car continued on past the scene without stopping. Even more troubling, this tragedy had occurred not long after Katherine’s husband passed away in a propane accident.

“Can I ask you something?” I interjected, feeling a bit impolite. “I just can’t imagine how in the world you found it within yourself to do this?”

Katherine paused for a moment before answering my question. I watched as her eyes broke from mine to settle on a spot across the room, as if she hadn’t expected my question. Then she returned her gaze. “I guess I just had empathy for the driver,” she said matter-of-factly. “I don’t think I could have ever gotten out of bed,” I said after a pause, amazed at her answer and fully absorbed in my own feelings as I imagined myself in her situation. It was a display of total selfishness that was quite the sharp contrast to her obvious capacity for empathy.

She admitted it took some time. “I mean, I do remember hearing the driver say his failure to stop was because he thought he had run over a dog, but he wasn’t sure,” she offered. Ultimately though, Katherine realized that she had to be strong for her son, who was recovering, and for her 4-year-old daughter, who had also been at the scene.

She recalled her chance meeting with the driver, whom she came upon again later at the accident site. She was returning home from the hospital, where her son was in the intensive care unit, and intending to have dinner with her daughter. “I hugged him,” she said.

Sensing my amazement, Katherine elaborated, “I can recall with perfect clarity the feelings I had at the time and my mental reasoning. I thought, ‘How would I feel if I were this older driver and I realized I had run over a child?’ It is too horrible to imagine—and yet, it happened.”

In their conversation, the elderly gentleman expressed that he felt himself to be innocent. The accident was not his fault, he said, because he did not do it on purpose. This must have been difficult to hear, but Katherine said that as he spoke, an image formed in her mind, and it influenced her perspective. “I saw a black hole, black like the complete absence of light,” she recalled. “I saw my son fall into it, but I also saw the man who ran over him fall into it. That’s how I knew they were both victims.”

After a pause, she added, “Grandfathers are not supposed to run over the grandchildren.”

Katherine later learned that the older driver who struck her son had dementia, and she realized that he was incapable of understanding that he should not have been behind the wheel. “The inability to self-evaluate is a characteristic of dementia,” she explained.

Katherine became involved in senior mobility issues, and she began to research the data. She learned that the question of giving up one’s car was a quiet and unnoticed one that affects families and communities everywhere. Whereas others viewed this simply as a question of whether an older person is safe to drive—they measured the person against the needs of the transportation system—Katherine concluded that the existing transportation system was not serving the needs of normally aging people. “Seniors begin to limit their driving and mobility for many years before they stop,”
Katherine said. “They stop driving in the snow, and they avoid unfamiliar neighborhoods, interstate highways, rush hour, and parking garages. Some people consider these normal adjustments. I say it is like managing air pollution by breathing less. People need mobility, at any age.”

She also recognized that the system completely failed us as soon as we stopped driving. And because women outlive their decision to stop driving by an average of 11 years and men by 6 years, these older Americans are vulnerable to being stranded, isolated, and feeling inadequate because they cannot safely operate their own vehicles.

Katherine believed that the solution to this problem needed to serve the aging population at the point where the system had previously failed, so that people could live full and meaningful lives throughout their entire lifespan. It was through her ability to understand the problem that Katherine found herself able to take action. It was the alternative to harboring anger.

But there was something else. Katherine had money from her husband’s modest life-insurance policy that she could put behind her idea. She used some of these finances to get an advanced university degree and set herself up to provide for her family, but she also recognized that she had been put in a position where she could make an initial investment in her idea. “I never had money,” she said. “I worked from a young age, and growing up, we were never really affluent.”

Katherine saw the chance to solve a problem and also honor her husband’s life and legacy. “I thought: How could I not? I had the ability to do this.”

Katherine thinks of herself as a mobility advocate more than the founding CEO of a transportation service. At 70, she remains dedicated to driving this conversation from kitchen tables into the public discourse. She sees a looming, complex problem ahead for our nation, as 10,000 Americans will turn 65 every day until the end of the decade. By 2030, more than 70 million Americans will be 65 or older.

There are so many ways in which Katherine could have channeled her energy after tragedy shook her life. She used her capacity for empathy to spot a solution, and then she successfully brought a community around it so that older Americans could have the dignity of remaining mobile and in their homes. Thankfully, Katherine’s son did recover from his accident. Her energy is noticeably elevated when describing him—a lovely man whom she characterizes as “kind and aware.”

Kind and aware—in her portrayal of her son, Katherine has offered a clue to the key attributes that changemakers value.

Excerpted from Changemaker Playbook: The New Physics of Leadership in a World of Explosive Change by Henry De Sio.

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