Program will gauge elders’ driving skills

Emerson course starts in January

Age alone is no determiner of safe driving skills, according to Emerson Hospital staff who will lead an out-patient program. Age alone is no determiner of safe driving skills, according to Emerson Hospital staff who will lead an out-patient program. (Bill Polo/Globe Staff/File 2007)
By Dan Adams
Globe Correspondent / August 14, 2011

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A new program announced by Emerson Hospital last week aims to help older drivers and their families make a difficult decision: When is it time to hang up the keys?

As the website of the state’s Registry of Motor Vehicles coolly notes: “Research shows that we tend to drive better as we age . . . up to a certain point.’’

So when is that point? Emerson’s outpatient program, which begins in January and is called “Keys to Independence,’’ tries to answer that question objectively by testing the visual acuity, range of motion, strength, and the cognitive and perceptual abilities of older drivers referred by concerned physicians or family members.

“It comes up a lot in occupational therapy, and we didn’t really have a tool to assess it,’’ said Terrie Enis, Emerson’s director of rehabilitation. “We thought there was clearly a need in the community, and with baby boomers aging every day, this is certainly a need that’s going to become bigger as we move forward.’’

Assessing ability is only one part of the equation, however. Next month, Emerson will host the AARP Driver Safety Program, designed for drivers age 50 and older. In October, the hospital is also introducing CARFit, which helps seniors adjust their cars to their needs.

“Sometimes you see people in cars, and you don’t even see a driver’’ because their seat is too low, said Enis.

Michele Dolan, an occupational therapist at Emerson, said the Concord hospital had previously referred patients to several programs similar to Keys to Independence, but there was a high cancellation rate.

“If it’s too far away, they won’t go,’’ she said.

During the Keys program, occupational therapists like Dolan will administer a battery of tests using specialized equipment, including a pedal that measures how long it takes a driver to apply the brake and a computer program that measures a driver’s ability to make decisions and stay focused while being distracted.

Drivers who pass the clinical assessment without concern will then take a road test in a special car accompanied by a driving instructor and the occupational therapist.

The therapist will then provide a final report to the patient’s physician, who is ultimately responsible for asking the patient not to drive, if that is the recommendation. In Massachusetts, drivers over 75 must pass a simple vision test before renewing their license, according to the Registry’s website.

Enis said that rather than trying to take “experienced’’ drivers off the road, Emerson is actually trying to help them maintain their independence, as the name of the program suggests.

“These people have been driving for years,’’ Enis said. “That’s how they get around, it’s their form of community mobility. And when you lose that, it’s really hard. But we want to make sure everyone’s safe too.’’

Enis said the hardest part of giving up driving is often psychological, not logistical.

“They stop interacting with peers because they can’t get out and can’t drive. That isolation is terrible for people.’’

Keys is also designed for recent heart attack or stroke victims, and others whose health has changed, as with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis or another neurological illness, Enis said.

For information on Emerson’s programs, call 978-287-8200 or visit

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