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Older Driver: ‘I Wanted to Make Sure I was Still 100 percent Functional Behind the Wheel’

Occupational therapy practitioners trained
 in driver rehabilitation help extend safe driving years

WHEATON, IL (Dec. 1, 2017) — For 81-year-old Vincent Losito, happiness is driving his white Mercedes-Benz S550. The self-proclaimed “foodie” takes regular trips into downtown Chicago to visit his favorite Italian restaurants. He even drives rental cars while in Italy, a place he frequents with family. But when a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease came 3 years ago around the time of his wife’s passing, Losito decided to seek a driver evaluation with an occupational therapist, just to be sure his skills were still sharp.

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“I wanted to make sure I was 100 percent functional behind the wheel,” said Losito. “I was a pediatric dentist for 52 years. I’ve dedicated my life to children and I didn’t want to hurt a child or myself with a vehicle.”

Unsure what to expect at the evaluation, Losito had one goal in mind: increased confidence behind the wheel.

Losito made an appointment for a driving evaluation at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital's Driver Rehabilitation Program near his home in Wheaton, Ill. The 2.5-hour driving evaluation is designed to provide a comprehensive, objective appraisal of a person's ability to drive safely. It occurs in two parts: Part one is a clinical occupational therapy evaluation that assesses the individual's vision, perception, cognition, and motor function. Part two is a behind-the-wheel evaluation, which takes place in one of Marianjoy's driver rehabilitation vehicles and assesses an individual's ability to operate a motor vehicle safely.

According to occupational therapist Pam Bartle, OTR/L, CDRS, CDI, who worked with Losito, all aspects of driving were reviewed to offer guidance on “fitness to drive,” taking into careful account his age and recent diagnosis. In a series of tests, special attention was paid to visual, cognitive, and physical fitness.

“His goal was clear–he wanted to keep driving, but only if he could do so safely,” said Bartle, who took Losito’s diagnosis into account when making her recommendation.

“I enjoy being challenged,” Losito said of the on-road portion of the evaluation where he drove a Marianjoy vehicle to a determined destination, backed in and out of driveways, maneuvered parking lots, and was not distracted by the OT accompanying him. “The OT engaged me in a conversation about Italy. I didn’t think the OT was trying to distract me, but he was. I wasn’t intentional in not letting him distract me; he just didn’t. I walked out feeling that I was tested thoroughly, and now I have increased confidence of my abilities.”

While Losito was deemed “fit to drive” without restrictions, he knows that he will likely go back to Marianjoy when his symptoms progress. “Driving is a challenge when you’re in your 80s,” he said. “I don’t feel overly challenged now driving into the city, but most of my friends my age recognize some change in themselves.”

While many older drivers seek evaluation after a physician’s referral, Losito is one of a growing number of older drivers who voluntarily seek out programs to maintain their community mobility.

“There’s a misconception that seeking help means we’re going to take their license away,” says Anne Hegberg, MS, OTR/L, CDRS, CDI, lead clinician in the Driver Rehabilitation Program at Marianjoy. “Dr. Losito is a great example of how the information the evaluation offers supports independent planning and decisions. We’re here to help them continue to drive as long as safely possible.”

Programs like Marianjoy’s exist across the U.S. and strive to make driving safer and more comfortable. Occupational therapy evaluations provide a service that includes assessment, education, and solutions.  Driving Rehabilitation Programs are helping thousands of drivers continue driving despite medical symptoms that could, when not addressed, make it too challenging to safely continue.

CarFit is a community education event dedicated to safer driving for seniors. At a CarFit event, trained volunteers consult a 12-point checklist as the driver sits in their own vehicle. The goal is to make sure the car’s safety features “fit” the driver. Trained volunteers and occupational therapy practitioners work with the driver to provide education about medically appropriate adjustments and sometimes added gadgets or equipment that makes driving safer and more comfortable. (To find a free event in your community, visit www.car-fit.org.)

Occupational therapy practitioners can also work with older adults to research and practice different modes of transportation that provide the specific supports they may need to maintain safe community mobility beyond the car, such as public transportation, cabs, car services, and ride-share programs. If learned during the phase of transition from driving, when driving is no longer safe, the driver is already comfortable with driving alternatives.

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), along with AAA, AARP Driver Safety, The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the National Center for Senior Transportation (NCST), and other organizations, is raising awareness of ways to keep older drivers safe on the road as drivers and non-drivers through AOTA’s Older Driver Safety Awareness Week (Dec. 4—8, 2017). Held annually during the first week of December, the campaign raises awareness of the growing population of older adults and their transportation needs. Each day covers a theme critical to empowering older drivers and their families:

To learn more, visit www.aota.org/driver-safety or follow #ODSAW17. A Twitter chat (#ODSAWchat) featuring representatives from national safety and aging organizations will kick off the week at 3 p.m. ET on Monday, Dec. 4.

Founded in 1917, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) represents the professional interests and concerns of more than 213,000 occupational therapists, assistants, and students nationwide. The Association educates the public and advances the profession of occupational therapy by providing resources, setting professional and educational standards, and serving as an advocate to improve health care. Based in Bethesda, Md., AOTA’s major programs and activities are directed toward promoting the professional development of its members and assuring consumer access to quality services so patients can maximize their individual potential. For more information, go to www.aota.org. For more information about AOTA’s Older Driver Safety Awareness Week, visit www.aota.org/driver-safety.

Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, part of Northwestern Medicine, has been a leader in physical medicine and rehabilitation since 1972, advancing the field with a “high-touch, high-tech” approach. Marianjoy’s Wheaton campus is a state-of-the-art facility with 127 beds for acute and subacute care. Marianjoy maintains an extensive network of inpatient, subacute, and outpatient sites, as well as physician clinics throughout the Chicagoland area. To learn more about Marianjoy, please visit www.marianjoy.org. To learn more about the Driver Rehabilitation Program, visit http://marianjoy.org/rehab-technology/MARTI/Driver-Rehab.aspx.

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Media Contact: Katie Riley, Manager of Media & Public Relations, 301-652-6611 x2963 or kriley@aota.org.