Sunday, September 24, 2023

When should seniors stop driving? This program helps find out.

A program at Riverside Center for Excellence in Aging and Lifelong Health (CEALH) is helping seniors stay safe on the roads -- and determining when they should stay off them. (file photo)
A program at Riverside Center for Excellence in Aging and Lifelong Health (CEALH) is helping seniors stay safe on the roads — and determining when they should stay off them. (file photo)

You don’t realize how important driving is until you lose your right to do it.

Many seniors face that hurdle, and a program at Riverside Center for Excellence in Aging and Lifelong Health (CEALH) is helping them through it.

The program provides driving assessments for people who have come to the attention of the Department of Motor Vehicles for being potentially unfit to drive.

It is oftentimes the senior’s loved ones—such as spouses or children—who file an anonymous complaint with the DMV. The department then alerts the person to the complaint, giving him or her 30 days to get assessed for their driving skills, or else they’ll have their license revoked.

“I think it takes some pressure off [caregivers],” said Christine Jensen, the Director of Health Services Research at CEALH. “We have an objective way to assess their driving.”

When they come in for the evaluation, they first spend an hour and a half doing memory, vision and reflex tests, before then going out for the in-town and highway driving tests.

“We retire about fifty percent from driving,” Jensen said. “The other half get restrictions like no more highway driving. We tell others to come back in six months.”

The big picture: driving and aging America

According to the Pew Research Center, everyday 10,000 people turn 65. That means when all Baby Boomers are 65, that population will be 80 million, adds Rick Jackson, the executive director of CEALTH. In Williamsburg, 25 percent of the population is over 60.

“Ninety-seven percent of aging Americans want to live all of their days in their homes,” Jackson said. “If they happen to live in suburbia or rural America, where there isn’t mass transportation, one of the most important ingredients is whether or not they can drive.”

Driving involves a lot of overlooked skills that begin to fade in the aging process, Jackson explained. Dementia, for example, causes cognitive impairments, and vision, hearing, flexibility and upper body strength also begin to decline.

Another thing that becomes impaired is the speed at which our brains process information, Jackson added. “A car comes in front of you, and your reaction times slows down.”

Rarely do people actually voluntarily submit themselves for an assessment—only about one percent of people coming in, Jackson said. Primary care physicians can also refer their patients, a practice which in some states, is obligatory. It is not in Virginia.

“I think we ought to reconsider that,” Jackson said, recalling a case in California that led to legislation there, in which an elderly person had a collision with another car, whose driver died. The victim’s family requested the elderly person’s medical records, and filed a suit based on evidence of unfitness for driving.

Riverside’s Center is the only driving assessment center in the Hampton Roads area, but one of several in the state, Jackson said.

Insurance doesn’t cover the evaluation, which costs $350. They have a sliding scale for people who can’t afford it, Jackson said.

“We don’t let their financial health prevent them from getting the evaluation.”

15 years and counting

This summer marks CEALH’s 15th anniversary. The idea was born with research done by two William & Mary health professors. One of them, David Finifter, who is now retired, said that one of the things that initially sparked research into the feasibility of having a center on aging in Williamsburg was a sticky situation at Eastern State Hospital.

“They had a geriatric unit, and there was talk from Richmond about closing it down, or seriously downsizing it,” Finifter said. “Initially we were looking at aging issues from the perspective of those served by Eastern State.”

Demographics was another issue that inspired CEALH, Finifter continued. The aging of the Baby Boomers was on the horizon, and in Williamsburg, that meant a mixed population—of wealthier retirees, and lower-income people.

“We projected a diverse group of seniors who had various needs,” Finifter said.

Then William & Mary President Tim Sullivan commissioned the study that Finifter and colleagues carried out on what such a center would look like. They scanned the country looking for such centers.

“There were literally hundreds of centers to satisfy what seemed like growing needs,” Finifter said.

For CEALH, they had initial funding and support from William & Mary, Sentara, Riverside and other community groups. Five years ago, Riverside took it over.

In addition to the driving assessments, CEALH provides comprehensive geriatric assessments for memory, mental health and mobility; and they conduct research on dementia care.

For more information on CEALH, or the driving assessment program in particular, the website is ; or the main phone line is 757-220-4751.

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