Life Transitions an Important Time to Assess Driving Skills

Winter is a time for reflection. The holidays bring us together with family and friends, giving us an opportunity to spend time with each other and perhaps identify some changes as we age. These common life changes also represent an opportunity to take stock of potentially declining abilities. As an occupational therapist and a driver rehabilitation specialist, I often notice the challenges created for older drivers. The days are shorter and many seniors choose not to drive in the dark. Many also prefer not to drive in icy or snowy conditions.

Consider these scenarios:

  1. Gretchen scheduled her elective hip surgery. Philip, her spouse, hasn’t driven much in the last two years due to a progressive illness, but expects to be able to handle the temporary role shift to primary driver. He’s been a licensed driver for 60 years.
  2. Michael’s spouse passed away last spring. He has decided to leave his New Jersey town of 50 years to be closer to his son’s family in Massachusetts.
  3. Judith and Richard have decided to move to an independent or assisted living community from a different part of the state.

What do these scenarios have in common? Each places a driver in a new environment with new and different physical and cognitive demands.

Philip may be perfectly comfortable running errands within a few miles of his home, but the added demands of navigating the hospital parking lot, and resuming the responsibilities of grocery shopping and other errands may be a larger stress on him than this family realizes. Philip may benefit from some help from a friendly neighbor. He may also be able to line up some transportation or shopping trips with his local Council on Aging.

Michael must now learn the layout of a new town. His family has not observed his driving in many years. It might be helpful to Michael to have a family member drive the routes with him as he becomes accustomed to his new surroundings. He may benefit from a gym membership or join a social group.

It’s possible that either Judith or Richard is nearing the end of their ability to drive safely. Add in this change of environment and they may become overwhelmed while driving or get lost. Senior communities often have the need to monitor driver safety behaviors and may request a comprehensive driver assessment. Many of these communities offer their own, reasonably priced, transportation.

A baseline assessment of fitness to drive may be considered by an older driver regardless of physical and cognitive deficits. Age alone is not an accurate predictor of safety on the road. I was recently the passenger of a driver in her early-90s who demonstrated better awareness of hazards and knowledge of the right-of-way laws than the majority of people I know! Even so, decreased mental flexibility and slower reaction times are considered somewhat normal in drivers over the age of 75.

Change of residence or change of life roles are important times to take stock of driver safety. Occupational therapy driver rehabilitation specialists (DRS) can help drivers and their families assess fitness to drive so that they may make timely decisions regarding independent transportation during these common transitions. If you or a loved one are facing the need to adapt to a new driving role, or driving in a new location, consider a professional consultation.

Kristen Dixon Keilty, MS, OTR/L, CDI, DRS has run the Keys to Independence program at Emerson Hospital since 2012. She can be reached at (978) 287-8244 to provide further information on occupational therapy driver assessments and schedule an evaluation. Book on or before January 15, 2017, to receive a $50 discount!