SMH's Driver Rehab Program Can Keep Older Adults in the Driver's Seat
The evaluation helps older adults and people rebuilding their lives after a severe injury or debilitating illness.
It’s a painful rite of passage — giving up the car keys when age takes its toll on motor skills or cognitive function.
The challenge can be as simple as turning the steering wheel or comfortably moving your head left and right to look for oncoming traffic. But it also can be as impossible as finding your driveway.
That’s where Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s Driver Evaluation and Rehabilitation program steps in.
For years, physical therapists with the hospital’s outpatient rehab services have helped drivers determine whether they are still safe to stay on the road or return behind the wheel after a severe injury.
Many of the clients, who must be referred to the service by a physician, are in their 70s or 80s.
There are also many drivers who want to rebuild their lives after a severe injury or a debilitating illness, said Brandy Pouso, a physical therapist and certified driver rehabilitation specialist at SHM.
Since 2004, Florida drivers over the age of 80 are required to pass a vision test when they renew their license. But there is no physical or other examination required. SHM’s program is one of the few resources in the area that includes a physical, vision, cognitive, and driving evaluation.
Aging and driving safety
• Go to the eye doctor regularly.
• Get your hearing checked.
• Exercising often is the best way to maintain your abilities — even the ability to drive.
• Turn your head from side to side; this helps maintain the flexibility you might need to be able to look for a passing car or to check blind spots.
• Take a safe-driver course; it may qualify you for insurance discounts.
• Enroll in a driver assessment or reeducation course such as Sarasota Memorial’s Driver Evaluation and Rehabilitation Program. (Call 941-917-7600 for more information or to make an appointment).
“It’s about assessing and educating — not about forcing anyone to retire from driving,” said Pouso.
Driver evaluation recommendations can include anything from physical therapy to vehicle modifications, such as installing wider rearview mirrors or hand controls. They are also not shared with any government agency that regulates road safety.
The cost for an evaluation varies and is often dependent on the amount of time required for providing the service. SMH’s program, at the Health Care Center at Clark Road, is $100 an hour and is not covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance.
For financial support, clients may qualify for services through the state’s vocational rehabilitation or independent-living programs.
The evaluation, which typically takes about two hours, is sent to the referring physician, who will determine whether there is a need for rehabilitation or to limit driving to the daytime or if it’s time to consider hanging up the keys.
There are more drivers on the road than ever before. Not only are aging baby boomers driving up the numbers, but the number of drivers over 70 has increased by 48% between 1997 and 2016, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Older people also outlive their ability to drive safely by an average of seven to 10 years, according to research published last year from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Driving helps older adults stay mobile and independent. However, the risk of being injured or killed in a motor vehicle crash increases as people age, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
For example, involvement in fatal crashes per miles traveled begins increasing among drivers 70 to 74 and are highest among drivers ages 85 and older, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
This trend has been attributed more to an increased susceptibility to injury and medical complications among older drivers rather than an increased risk of crash involvement. People should be talking more about safe driving and may need to plan for “driving retirement,” said Pouso.
However, few older adults actually do, according to the research by the Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers project. That study found that almost 83% of drivers ages 65 to 79 haven’t spoken to family members or a physician about their safe-driving ability.
We Need to Talk, AARP’s free online seminar developed to help family members broach the topic of stopping or limiting driving, provides family members with the tools to begin a conversation about driving and also about possible solutions.
“It’s not an easy discussion to have,” said Pouso. “Giving up your car is a big change in your life. But if you’re proactive, and plan, you can save yourself a lot of heartache.”
For a list of affordable transportation options for older adults and people with disabilities and how to contact them, visit seniorbluebook.com, a free resource guide that covers Manatee, Sarasota, and Charlotte counties.
This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.