Well Elderly and Driving

March 24, 2015

As we age, we strive to maintain our independence. For many, this includes the ability to drive. Driving is a complex task that requires the coordination of many skills, from basic movements to quick reaction times. Yet subtle changes in physical fitness, vision, hearing and cognition start in our 40’s! In order to maintain our safety with driving, it is important to be aware of how aging can impact our driving abilities.

Physical Changes: Arthritis can change your ease and flexibility of movement, such as limiting you ability to turn your head, turn on the ignition or grasping the steering wheel. As we age, our height can change very slowly over time. This can make it difficult to have a clear view over the steering wheel.
• Vision: As we age, our vision can become blurred, we can have difficulty seeing in low light or at night, and we can have changes in color perception. These deficits can cause difficulty seeing road signs, traffic and pedestrians.
• Hearing: Hearing loss or changes can cause difficulty with hearing sirens, horns or warning bells in car.
• Cognitive changes: A multitude of cognitive changes can occur as we age impacting such areas as memory, judgment and concentration. Changes can cause delays in braking reaction time, trouble driving in unfamiliar areas or following traffic signs.

Unfortunately, as we age, we are also prone to medical diagnoses that impact driving.

• Cataracts cause the eyes to be more sensitive to glare, therefore can present with momentary blind spots and slowed focusing.
• Macular degeneration causes decreased central vision, therefore impacting the ability to see road signs, pedestrians and traffic.
• Diabetes can cause peripheral neuropathies which impacts the ability to sense if your foot is fully on the gas or brake. Diabetes can also cause diabetic retinopathy, which is a condition that causes clouding of vision, impacting the ability to see road signs, traffic and pedestrians.

Additionally, more complex medical issues such as heart disease, stroke, Parkinson’s, dementia and Alzheimer’s can severely limit someone’s safety with driving.
The good news is that even with some of the above changes, you may be able to continue to drive safely with recommendations!

Helen Hayes Hospital offers a great program called CarFit, sponsored by AAA, AOTA, and AARP, which assesses how the well elderly “fit” in their vehicles. This year, CarFit is scheduled for Saturday April 25, from 9:00 am through 12:00 Noon. One of our certified CarFit technicians, who are also occupational therapists, will perform a thorough consultation evaluating items such as foot positioning on the gas and brake, mirror adjustments to reduce blind spots and head restraint adjustments. The program is free, but an appointment is required, which you can make by calling 845-786-4809,

In addition, Helen Hayes Hospital offers a comprehensive driving evaluation and training program for people that have medical issues that may affect their ability to drive safely. This program formally evaluates the physical and cognitive changes that occur from aging or aging-related disabilities. Following the evaluation, the clinician can determine a person’s safety with driving and can make recommendations for driving strategies or adapted equipment to be used in the vehicle. This is a fee-for-service program. Please contact the following number for more information on this service – 845 786-4194

-Eileen Szysh, OT