One of the most important topics of conversations for those caring for older Americans is safe driving. Having the ability to drive gives older adults a sense of independence and so many families grapple with this issue knowing it may cause a difficult time for the transportation needs of seniors.
According to the National Council on Aging, as we get older our bodies seem to experience challenges from weaker muscles to stiff joints which may impair reaction times while driving. The mental and physical health challenges our older Americans encounter may make it harder to maneuver an automobile or even to brake safely.
Our blog post from 2017, highlighted the Older Driver Safety Week initiative that was founded by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) 10 years ago in an effort to bring safe driving awareness for older drivers. To kick off this year's initiative, we joined in a live #OTalk2us twitter chat hosted by the AOTA and listened to the experts discuss several important issues regarding this life changing topic. After a playing a part in the discussion, we believe it is crucial for all of us to advocate for safe driving solutions instead of only discussing the problems. We learned first hand the importance of having an occupational therapist evaluate driving skills and abilities. We think having access to such a crucial partner on your older driver team is vital. If you follow AOTA's 5 crucial tips and recommendations, you will make a dramatic difference in helping older adults remain safe on the road.
Anticipate changes that effect driving - No question our health can have a great impact on driving an automobile. Our health can improve or diminish over time, but it always makes good sense to pay close attention to it. According to Elin Schold Davis, OTR/L, CDRS and project coordinator for the AOTA's Older Driver Safety Week initiative, “When an ache or pain begins hindering driving ability, many older drivers are able to continue driving safely after making a few adjustments.” For example, older drivers having trouble seeing at night should limit their driving to daylight hours only. Those experiencing anxiety driving during high traffic times should avoid driving during rush hour. Also, for drivers, who experience pain using a seat belt can purchase equipment that will help eliminate the problem.
Family conversations - AOTA chose December for Older Driver Safety Awareness Week because many families come together during this time for the holidays making it a good time to have non threatening discussions about older driver safety. It is important for family and friends to begin these conversations prior to a crisis occurring. During these early discussions, it is a good time for family members to share information about maintaining good physical and mental heath to preserve safe driving skills. Conversations are sometimes difficult for families, so having access to an occupational driving rehabilitation therapist can be a valuable resource. In addition to conversations, occupational therapists recommend having a “driving advocate” who will commit to drive around to evaluate the driving skills and offer advice. Occupational therapy practitioners have a special skill set to provide families with materials on older driver safety, support families when needed and provide tailored information to keep older adults safe.
Screen and evaluate with Occupational Therapist - Like checking under the hood of an automobile, older adults need a checkup to see how their physical, mental and cognitive abilities are holding up. Assessments can be administered by an occupational driving therapist in various ways from self assessments to a comprehensive driving evaluation. Driving evaluations are important, but are especially essential for those experiencing medical conditions. The driving school instructors are trained to focus on whether the driver can maintain safe control of the vehicle and not evaluate the medical condition faced by the older driver. These evaluations will go a long way in helping develop a plan and strategy for the senior driver.
Interventions that can empower families and drivers - The goal of the occupational therapist is helping families and older drivers formulate plans to ensure safe driving on the road. At the completion of the comprehensive driving evaluation, the occupational therapist delivers his road map to make driving safer and more comfortable for the senior driver. The plan is very thorough and gives the family and driver suggestions for adaptation if necessary. Driving activity is essential for older Americans who want to remain independent, so additional ideas and suggestions are usually well received.
Stay engaged in the community with or without a car - When the older driver discovers their inability to drive safely, it can be a difficult time for them staying involved and engaged in the community. With the setback, seniors may be faced with isolation, depression and a loss of control. Families and seniors need to come together and find innovative ways to help with future transportation needs. Families can alternate days to assist or consider public transportation. Over the last few years, ride sharing companies like Uber and Lyft have helped seniors with their transportation independence. Occupational therapy practitioners can help families coordinate schedules and assist with arranging transportation.
As we've determined, the aging process proves that we all age differently and there aren't any hard and fast rules for older drivers. If we pay attention to our loved ones behind the wheel and pitch in together, we will go a long way to ensure their safety.