On The Road Again: Specialists Help Aging Drivers As we age, vision, physical strength and memory may decline, making the act of driving challenging, and potentially dangerous. For some seniors and people with disabilities, special training with a driver rehabilitation specialist offers a way to learn to drive safely, and regain their independence.
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On The Road Again: Specialists Help Aging Drivers

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On The Road Again: Specialists Help Aging Drivers

On The Road Again: Specialists Help Aging Drivers

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

Today in Your Health: older drivers. As we age, we often lose some of the abilities that make us safe drivers. Vision, memory, physical strength and reaction time all may decline. That's where a little-known health-care professional can help out, as NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Glenn Digman is a driver rehabilitation specialist. That's a therapist, often an occupational therapist, with special training to help people compensate for a disability that makes it hard to drive.

Mr. GLENN DIGMAN (Driver Rehabilitation Specialist): We're about helping you drive safely. Often, we're the hero when we put a nice man on the road, and sometimes we're the villain.

SHAPIRO: Because sometimes the driver rehabilitation specialist has to tell an older person they can't drive safely anymore. Among his clients are people with fading eyesight who need to test their night vision. Or someone partially paralyzed after a stroke, learning to use a left-foot accelerator. Or it might be someone whose license has been suspended because of they had an accident or flunked a driving test.

On this day, Digman greets a client in the waiting room at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington. They're going out for a driving lesson.

Mr. DIGMAN: If you're ready and you're comfortable with rain, because we have rain today. How do you feel about rain and driving?

Mr. JOHN PETERSON Sr.: Well, the Lord sent it, so I'll take it.

SHAPIRO: John Peterson Sr. is learning how to drive using hand controls. His right leg was amputated, the result of complications from diabetes. Peterson is 74. He's wearing a cardigan sweater and using a bulky power wheelchair. He hasn't driven in two-and-a-half years. Peterson was the longtime pastor at an historic black Baptist church in Virginia.

Today, his wife and daughter drove him here, but he can't always depend upon them to get around.

Mr. PETERSON Sr.: Because my wife has problems with her eyes, and our children both live out of town. Plus, I'm writing a book and I need to visit some churches that I'm writing about. And so driving is very important.

SHAPIRO: At their first session, Digman put Peterson through a battery of tests to check things like vision, reaction time and memory. Then they started driving in this white van. Two of those sessions went well, but last time Peterson changed lanes without seeing a bus behind him. Then he made a left turn onto a divided road and started going down the wrong side of the street. He's got to prove today that he can drive without making those kinds of mistakes again.

Mr. PETERSON Sr.: Up, acceleration, down for brake.

SHAPIRO: Today's session starts off a bit rocky. Peterson drives to a busy four-way stop. He carefully watches the other traffic, then goes through. The driver rehab specialist points out the woman who was standing at the curb.

Mr. DIGMAN: It would have been nice for wait for the lady in pink. She was thinking you were going to wait for her.

SHAPIRO: Peterson settles down after that.

Mr. DIGMAN: Now, watch the dotted lines carefully. This time it looks perfect.

SHAPIRO: There are about 300 certified driver rehabilitation specialists around the country. Most work for hospitals, some for senior centers. Often, it's a child or spouse who persuades the older person to see a specialist. Many times, it's an older person with advancing Alzheimer's disease or other form of dementia.

Susan Pierce is president of the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists.

Ms. SUSAN PIERCE (President, Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists): We have to be the ones to say no so that the daughter doesn't have to hear, you know, dad say, oh, you're the bad daughter, you took my car away. You took my driving away. You want that older person to remember, no, that was the driver rehab specialist. Remember, we went down to her office and this is what she said.

SHAPIRO: For the most part, insurance doesn't pay and it's expensive, from a couple hundred to several hundred dollars for a two or three-hour session. Someone with a vision problem may need a couple of sessions. Someone with a vision problem may need a couple sessions. Someone learning to use a hand brake and accelerator may need a half-dozen or more.

Mr. PETERSON Sr.: It was very good. I did well. I was comfortable.

SHAPIRO: After his two-hour session, John Peterson feels positive. Driver rehab specialist Glenn Digman agrees.

Mr. DIGMAN: So we were on streets of speed limits up to 45 miles an hour, up to six lanes in moderately heavy traffic. It all went very, very well. So you're almost up to expressway driving.

SHAPIRO: And that's next week's lesson: entering and exiting the highway.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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