We’re living longer and driving later in life. As we age, natural changes can make driving a more challenging task. In addition to hearing and vision changes which may affect driving ability, older drivers may also have difficulty using the car’s controls, may have limited physical movement which adversely affects their ability to remain aware of all their surroundings, and may have slower reaction time in an ever-changing environment. Older drivers are five times more likely to have an accident now than when they were younger.
The therapy department at Virginia Gay Hospital is striving to help older drivers more accurately assess their driving abilities by using sophisticated driving games to simulate the driving experience. The goal is to help older drivers understand their abilities more accurately and to help develop strategies to safely maintain independence.
“With these tools, we can more accurately assess the individual’s ability without subjecting anyone to the risk of an accident,” says Stacey Hodges, director of therapy services at Virginia Gay Hospital. “Using multiple screens and the sophistication of the software, we can simulate the consequences of limited peripheral vision, slower reaction times, and the challenges of driving at night. We can also vary the amount of traffic on the road by simulating residential streets, lightly traveled highways, or the higher speeds on a busy freeway.”
Therapists don’t decide whether a person is safe to drive; that remains the job of the department of transportation. But therapists can make recommendations, and perhaps more importantly, drivers get the opportunity to assess their abilities without being behind the wheel.
“Losing the ability to drive is a life-changing experience involving loss of independence,” Stacey says, “but there are many possible options between the simple choice of driving or not driving. A person may be fine driving during the day on lightly traveled streets, but be unable to safely drive at night because of night-vision issues.”
The causes of diminished driving skill can be complex, and improvements are possible. As an example, diminished ability to comfortably move the head from side to side can cause older drivers to focus almost exclusively on the road directly ahead, and by doing so, the driver can lose awareness of hazards from side streets or pedestrians. If the older driver uses an eyes-straight-ahead strategy long enough, it also becomes a bad habit.
An occupational therapist can help with exercises to increase the flexibility of the neck so looking to the side, or turning to look for traffic while backing or changing lanes isn’t painful. Help from a driving instructor can overcome the bad habit of locking the eyes and attention straight in front of the car. Even drivers with early memory loss can safely make routine trips to the grocery store or appointments with the help of a driving map, for example.
“We want to help our older patients assess their ability in a safe, non-threatening environment, says Stacey. “The older driver experiences many conditions that can diminish the ability to drive safely, but their long experience with life and driving also means they have an enhanced ability to assess risk and are often very honest with themselves about their abilities. By giving them tools to make their own decisions, we’re helping them lead a more independent life for much longer.”
Talk with your primary care provider if you are concerned about your driving ability, or contact the Virginia Gay Hospital therapy department at 319-472-6372.
(This article is part of Virginia Gay Hospital’s bi-annual publication, “Thrive” Spring/Summer 2018 issue. An online version of the entire publication can be found at https://myvgh.org/thrive/)