“To drive or not to drive?” may be the question, but the answer for most older adult drivers is typically “as long as I can!” Driving is a highly charged topic with older adults. It should never be taken away too soon, nor should it be extended beyond the point of safety. But how do we know the right time?
An occupational therapist certified driver rehabilitation specialist uses their knowledge of health-related conditions that affect driving to assess whether those conditions can limit driving and offers adaptations to keep a driver driving safely as long as possible.
Older drivers may experience health setbacks that impact their ability to drive. These setbacks may be temporary or can be more permanent. When you add in other concerns, such as loss of peripheral or indirect vision and cognitive or mental delay, the ability to continue driving becomes much more complicated. Another concern is mental decline. Long-term studies suggest that 15-20% of those over age 65 may have mild mental impairment. The fact that mental decline is gradual, unpredictable and individual creates the most challenging situation.
A certified driver rehabilitation specialist can find parts of the brain that are affected by mental decline and can complicate safe driving. How is this possible? There are tests that determine the speed to which the brain processes, as well as how the brain alternates and divides attention.
Although these tests do not decide driving skill, they supply glimpses into the brain that are suppressed when challenged using the mental ability related to driving. These findings coupled with a behind the wheel test supply the most complete assessment of a person’s driving competency. In the mildest cases, recommendations for computer generated brain games and brain challenging puzzles can help in sharpening the brain’s speed of responsiveness.
Certain health conditions may require added equipment to keep driving privileges within the Nevada State DMV laws. Can’t use your right foot due to amputation or nerve loss? Don't feel comfortable that your foot can find the brake pedal in time? Has a stroke affected your visual field to either the right or left? Is using secondary controls such as the turn signal out of reach? You should consider optional equipment supplied by automotive installers and the available training to master other ways to overcome these matters. Often, physical limitations can be replaced with attachments to an existing vehicle, while still allowing others to use the car in the traditional fashion. While we await an affordable self-driving vehicle, these changes can extend the safe driving capability for years.
Although the road ahead can be filled with speed bumps due to health, driving privileges can be preserved. When concerned, drivers, family members and health care providers should reach out to a certified driver rehabilitation specialist.
Debbie Hansen is an occupational therapist and the only certified driver rehabilitation specialist in the state of Nevada. Debbie also owns Adaptive Driving Rehab in Las Vegas, NV.