TMH Living Well: Fit to drive or not?
December 26, 2014
At some point in all of our lives, we become unfit to drive. It's hard to always know when that day has arrived. If you have an aging parent or relative, you may be wondering if it's time to take away the keys. Since Older Driver's Safety Awareness Week falls in December, it's a good time to consider it.
While driving often seems automatic, it's really quite a cognitive feat, especially in high-traffic situations or poor road conditions. Driving demands that we sense and respond to all we see. We must react to the actions of others quickly, understand the rules of the road, know where we are going and respond to various road signs. It demands memory and good reflexes.
Deciding whether someone should stop driving is a balance between independence and safety. When the scale tips toward unsafe, you might want to get an assessment done. Occupational therapists can do assessments, and some hold a specific certification in driving assessments.
Jill Jonas, occupational therapist at The Memorial Hospital, is happy to be a part of an assessment process for you and your family. Although not certified as a driving specialist, she does help patients who are recovering from stroke or traumatic brain injury regain driving skills. Call her at TMH Rehabilitation Center at 970-824-5992.
"A red flag that someone needs to be assessed is if they are having trouble seeing in general — say bumping into furniture or walls or walking unsteadily on sidewalks — they will have the same issues on the road," Jonas said.
Screening tools to determine driving fitness are a great place to start.
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At http://fitnesstodrive.phhp.ufl.edu, family members or friends rate the older person's driving abilities and receive a score determining if they are at risk for injuring themselves or others. In this survey, screening questions have you rate the difficulty the person has with several driving demands, including starting the car, watching while backing up, using controls and mirrors and following road rules.
It also checks cognitive skills including those needed to talk while driving, drive in adverse conditions, flow with traffic, change lanes and maneuver in parking lots. A self-evaluation is also available at http://seniordriving.aaa.com.
"Let your loved one's driving behavior be the gauge. If he or she is driving slow, sitting at lights after they change, acting confused at exits or having minor fender benders with objects like shopping carts or light poles, cognitive changes or vision changes may be occurring," Jonas said.
A good overall sign that someone might be ready to retire a driver's license is how he or she feels about driving.
Do they seem more uncomfortable, irritated or stressed when driving? Other signs to watch for as the passenger include getting lost even on roads they know, showing confusion with the unexpected, like road work, and misjudging distance causing them to hit curbs or stray into the next lane.
Medication side effects also can make driving more challenging. If this is happening, it may be time to talk about it.
"It can be a difficult topic for children to broach with parents. That's why it's helpful to enlist a medical provider because they might be more accepting of an outside professional opinion," Jonas said.
Start the conversation by acknowledging that it will be difficult to give up driving, especially at first before a new routine for getting around is established. Talk candidly and involve them in the discussion. Focus on the benefits — no car means no car maintenance or insurance costs. Discuss options for getting to the grocery store or bank, including enlisting relatives or carpooling with neighbors. It's not easy, but once the change is made, life will settle back to normal.
A great resource is the Senior Express van service through Sunset Meadows. Seniors who live within 5 miles of the facility at 636 Ledford can schedule rides to the grocery store, doctor's office and more.
The program is partly funded through the Area Agency on Aging and takes donations. Schedule rides with 24-hour notice at 970-824-3660.
This weekly article with tips on living well is sponsored by The Memorial Hospital at Craig — improving the quality of life for the communities we serve through patient-centered health care and service excellence.