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Holidays a good time to talk with older drivers PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, December 05, 2013 9:00 PM


Staff Writer

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DELPHOS — According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), close to 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day and nearly 90 percent of these motorists suffer from changes in physical, mental and sensory abilities that challenge a person’s ability to drive.

This week marks the American Occupational Therapy Association’s (AOTA) Older Driver Safety Awareness Week, which promotes the understanding of the importance of mobility and transportation to ensure older adults remain active in the community. The association believes there is a need for awareness of the solutions for safe travel options for older drivers, rather than focusing on the problems they face.


The Older Driver Safety Awareness Week is held each year in December — a time when families are planning holiday celebrations — and can be a perfect occasion to begin conversations addressing the safety of an older family member who is still driving.


In addition, it offers them a window of opportunity to plan and explore options before any crisis or accident occurs.

Physical, emotional and cognitive changes in driving abilities in older adults are normal and occur at different rates and times. As these drivers plan for future transportation needs and ensure their driving safety and independence, which is an essential activity of daily living, they may want to evaluate their driving abilities through an individualized assessment by an occupational therapist.

Practitioners evaluate an older driver’s ability to operate a vehicle safely and are specially trained in the full scope of driving rehabilitation. Therapists can identify the individual’s unique challenges and find strategies that will help them live life to its fullest by keeping them active — shopping, working or volunteering — and safe in their communities.

St. Rita’s Medical Center’s Occupational Therapist Kim Fields said families should pay attention to changes in an older driver’s cognitive abilities, which includes short- term memory, ability to pay attention, focus and follow directions.

“Early signs of impairment include frequently repeating stories of close calls while driving and/or blaming other drivers for close calls,” Fields explained. “Or there are visual signs like small scrapes on bumpers or side view mirrors.”

Fields said that if there has been significant change in health — a stroke, brain injury or general debilitation — the older driver’s physical ability starts to decline and their reaction time is affected.

Changes in vision, flexibility, strength, range of motion and even height are all part of the aging process and they can affect senior drivers behind the wheel.

“Although older Americans are healthier now, more than ever before, the aging process can diminish a person’s vision or limit range of motion, which can impact their driving,” said AAA Adult Traffic Safety Manager Mary Lou Gallimore.

Fields said patients who take the Simulated Driving Assessment are referred by a physician and have typically suffered a physical health impairment — stroke, spinal cord injury or general debilitation.

“The largest number of people we see are those who have cognitive changes due to diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Fields added.

The assessment examines three areas including the client’s general and peripheral vision, cognition and physical abilities.

“Physical abilities include lower and upper body strength, the manipulation of all functions of a vehicle, how fast they move their foot from the accelerator to the brake and get in and out of the car and how quickly they react to a threat — for example, a car cutting them off the road,” Fields detailed.

After the assessment, the occupational therapist and client discuss a plan and explore the use of assistive devices tailored specifically to their needs, which will ensure comfortable, safe driving for as long as possible.

Fields said that some clients may suffer a significant loss of strength from complications of surgery and there are devices which are doctor recommended and must be approved by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

“Loss in shoulder strength may call for assistive devices like a smaller sized steering wheel or spinning knob,” Fields added. “For those who are naturally short and/or have loss in lower body strength, there are pedal extenders and hand controls, which are an option.”

Fields said that it is a difficult subject to bring up since driving is a person’s independence.

“It is a huge change in lifestyle,” Fields empathized. “It’s hard on a child having a parent feel as if they are a burden when all they want is for their parent and the general public to be safe.”

Fields said there are options. For example, the Allen County Council on Aging offers free transportation for many different types of appointments and personal errands.

For more information on transportation services offered by the Allen County Council on Aging, visit or call 419-228-5135.

Last Updated on Thursday, December 05, 2013 9:11 PM

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