Safe at any age?

Safe at any age?

Jewish Home at Rockleigh offers assessment program to test older drivers’ skills

Staff occupational therapist Happy Thampikutty works with a client at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh.
Staff occupational therapist Happy Thampikutty works with a client at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh.

Reflexes, agility, eyesight and hearing all can decline as a result of aging or injury, making it difficult for someone to get in and out of a car and to drive safely.

Yet living in the suburbs without a car translates to a major loss of independence. That’s why adult children’s concerns about their elderly parents’ diminished driving ability often is one of the most difficult topics of conversation between them.

The Jewish Home at Rockleigh’s new Driver Assessment Program, which is available to the greater community, adds an objective professional voice to the conversation.

The evaluation even may make that conversation unnecessary. Sometimes a driver can remain safely behind the wheel with a bit of training on specific techniques or with the help of specialized equipment to improve comfort, visibility, and response time.

“In our society, the ability to drive is hugely important. Many of our older adults are living in suburbia, where they’re isolated without public transportation,” said Carol Silver Elliott, president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Home Family. “We started the assessment program last June as part of our commitment to keep people safe and provide opportunities to understand where they are with their driving and how they may be able to continue to drive.”

A similar program was available at Ms. Elliott’s previous post, Cedar Village Retirement Community in Mason, Ohio. “We found it was of great value to our community,” she said. “We used it with both older adults being discharged from rehab and people in the community questioning if it was still safe to drive.

“The program offers objective information, not just ‘Gee, Dad, it’s time to give up the car keys.’ The report is shared with the person’s physician, so the family doesn’t have to be the bad guy. But the ability to drive is not on or off, like a light switch. There is adaptive equipment available to help many people keep driving longer.”

The New Jersey State Motor Vehicle Commission requires motorists to renew their driver’s licenses every four years, and every other renewal must be done in person. But renewals, no matter what the applicant’s age, do not involve assessment of vision or driving skills. There are no additional requirements for senior drivers.

People can register for mature drivers’ courses, such as AARP’s 55Alive, or complete an informal self-assessment using an online service, such as Drivers 65 Plus or AAA Roadwise Review.

The Jewish Home’s rehabilitation director, Ilana Dallas, oversees its driver assessment program.
The Jewish Home’s rehabilitation director, Ilana Dallas, oversees its driver assessment program.

The Jewish Home’s Driver Assessment Program is overseen by its director of rehabilitation, Ilana Dallas of Teaneck. The assessments are done by staff occupational therapist Happy Thampikutty, who was sent for training at the national Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists.

“The assessment takes place within a week of contacting us,” Ms. Dallas said. “It takes approximately one hour for the first part, a clinical evaluation with Happy in which he is testing range of motion, vision, knowledge of road signs, and braking reaction time. We compare those results with normative data from the client’s age group and gender.”

The second part is a behind-the-wheel assessment facilitated by a local driving school. “Clients meet here at the Jewish Home and go on the road with Happy and the driving instructor, each of whom is looking at different aspects of the driving experience,” Ms. Dallas said.

A full report is later sent to the client and the client’s physician.

“It costs $180 for the first part and $200 for the second part, meaning you can buy peace of mind for under $400,” Ms. Dallas said.

When appropriate, Mr. Thampikutty will recommend adaptive equipment that can be bought locally. “Some of the items we can demonstrate here are a swivel cushion for getting in and out of the car more easily and a handy bar that can be installed to give you leverage at hip level to help you stand as you get out of the car,” he said.

Other modifications that may be suggested are driving only in daytime and/or only on familiar roads.

“Sometimes people may be worrying unnecessarily, and we can give them the confidence to remain on the road,” Ms. Dallas said. “We’re here to take away the emotional aspect of making this decision and offer an objective professional opinion that can be a tool for decision-making.”

The community service is not only for the elderly but also for anyone who has experienced a situation that could impair driving skills, such as a neurological event or an injury. However, the main focus is Bergen County’s sizable number of residents 65 years and older, estimated to be about 16 percent of the general population.

“As a provider of older adult services, we are a community resource on issues and questions of aging,” Ms. Elliott said. “We see our role as an organization that empowers older adults and anticipates and meets their needs.”

More details are available here or call (201) 518-1174.

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