Do You Have Concerns About a Loved One? Older Driver Safety Week is Here

Older Driver Safety Awareness Week is December  2-6, 2013

Photo Credit: Dave Pyle
Photo Credit: Dave Pyle

As a young girl visiting relatives in England, I recall sitting in the back seat of my grandfather’s 1972 Vauxhall, wearing my safety harness, careening down English country roads.  My grandfather was driving.

In his younger years, he successfully drove around wooded country lanes with hairpin turns and through the busy streets of London.  But over the years his skills had changed.  Although Granddad was behind the wheel, this effort actually took two “drivers”.  Since he was totally blind in one eye (as a result of aging), with failing vision in his “good” eye, my grandmother served as co-pilot.  “Turn left! Turn right!  Car coming on the right! Mind the lamppost!” Granny would shout.   Are you cringing yet? It was harrowing, to say the least.

Do you have a loved one who’s driving skills may have changed?   Have you observed difficulties such as trouble changing lanes, minor accidents, or getting lost on familiar routes?

Penny Eissenberg, Occupational Therapist and Director of Therapy Operations at Health South Rehabilitation Hospital in Richmond, manages the operations of their driver rehabilitation program.  Penny shared that if you suspect a problem with a loved one’s abilities, the first step is to go for a drive with the individual.

“Spending time with them (while they are) driving helps you gather information.  The driver is never going to hear a family member’s concerns if they feel they don’t have the perspective of being in the car with them.”  Penny remarked, “It’s a difficult conversation to have and you need to feel out the right time for it”. And if the time isn’t right, don’t broach the topic in the moment; but find the right time to address it.  Penny shared that it is all part of the process.  And she should know, since she has 12 years of experience guiding clients and their families through these steps.

Driver rehabilitation specialists offer a neutral, objective assessment. “I have broad shoulders, and sometimes, someone has to be the bad guy.  I can do that for families when that is necessary.”  However, the goal of driver assessment and rehabilitation is “not to stop people from driving, but rather, to help keep a person driving as safely as possible for as long as possible,” Penny continued.

Older-Driver-revised-banner-v2“After the initial conversation, the next step is a visit to the doctor,” Penny said.  “Sometimes changes in driving can be due to a change in pharmaceuticals, or other issues which can be addressed.”

Depending on the situation, the physician may recommend a driving assessment.  Occupational therapists who specialize in driver rehabilitation are uniquely qualified to perform driver assessments, due to their training in assessment of physical, cognitive, visual and visual-perceptual abilities, as well as analyzing a task to break it down into manageable pieces (often called activity analysis).   As part of increasing safety while maintaining independence, an occupational therapist may recommend strategies such as driving during daylight hours only, or modifications to a vehicle, such as wider mirrors or booster seats.

My Granddad did eventually give up driving.  But I am sure having these tips would have been helpful in the process, both in decision making, as well as maintaining a degree of independence once his car was garaged.  If you have a concern about a friend or family member’s driving abilities, consider these tips from the American Occupational Therapy Association.

To find a list of certified driver rehabilitation specialists, click here.