Occupational Therapy Helps Older Drivers Maintain Mobility

My 94-year-old grandmother recently made the decision to give up driving after being pulled over by a police officer for driving too slowly. (She also ignored the police officer’s sirens and lights, didn’t pull over immediately and kept pleasantly waving  “go around” thinking the officer was after a criminal and not her. Oops.) She could have kept her license, but she would have had to retake the driver’s exam. Determined, feisty and still able to do the splits (I’m not kidding), she may well have passed, but chose to give up driving instead.

Note: This is not an actual photo of my grandmother.

My parents, who are in their 70s don’t like to drive at night now, and I wonder at what age I will have to talk to them about driving safely. Will they drive well into their 90s like grandma? Thankfully, there are programs that can help.

Older Driver Safety Awareness Week is dedicated to building awareness of the growing array of options available to seniors to support their goal of driving safety and maintaining an active lifestyle. It is co-sponsored by the American Occupational Therapy Association because occupational therapists can help drivers like my grandmother and parents explore solutions to stay on the road safely and confidently or navigate a life without driving when the time comes.

Occupational therapists (OT)  are trained in the science of task analysis, which enables them to look at a specific task  and break it down into its basic components (physical, cognitive, emotional and spiritual). Driving a car comprises several of these subcomponents: visual-spatial skills, visual perception, visual processing speed, working memory, attention, foot and leg coordination, and upper body strength and flexibility. An occupational therapist helps assess these functions, address deficits and determines if there are remedies. Remedies may be as simple as adjusting vehicle seat height, mirrors or steering angle to the more complex, such as recommending specialized equipment or even specific driving restrictions.

“There is compelling evidence that those who maintain their community mobility live longer, have better emotional health, and maintain better cognition than those who are more isolated,” says Ron Porter, an occupational therapist with Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at Virginia Mason.

So how does one know when it’s time to take grandma to see an OT? “When you or your loved one begins to notice difficulty parking the car, missing traffic signals, needing assistance with navigation, backing over curbs, or negotiating a yielding left hand turn, these could be signs of increased accident risk,” explains Ron. “A qualified occupational therapist would be able to help guide you through a process of safe decision-making.”

In addition, Ron recommends having early conversations about driving safety with aging loved ones who may have to stop driving. “Most seniors do not want to be a ‘burden’ on their children, friends or other family members, and may avoid initiating conversations around these sensitive topics,” he notes. “Having a mobility plan in place, which may include limited driving, delegated drivers or public transportation alternatives, helps greatly when driving retirement becomes imminent.”

The Neuroscience Institute at Virginia Mason is actively working on a community mobility program to support seniors and other at-risk drivers so they can continue to access their communities and social contacts. The program will encompass remediation, compensatory strategies, and successful driving retirement to help patients meet their goals of community independence.

Older Driver Safety Awareness Week runs Dec. 2 to 6 this year. The American Occupational Therapy Association along with AAA, AARP Driver Safety, The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and other organizations have put together a daily theme to empower older drivers and their families. Each day’s theme can be found at the links below:

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