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Third party takes burden off family

'Dad's driving worries me. He's 85 years old. He places himself and others on the road in danger. Someone with authority needs to tell him to stop. He won't listen to me.'

As a physical therapist and rehabilitation director, I have heard statements like this more times than I can count.

In 2000, the Oregon Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division conducted an extensive study of older drivers. The results indicated that the problem is not people's age, but their individual fitness to drive, including visual, cognitive and functional abilities. When these abilities aren't fully functioning, they correlate to accidents.

This spring, the DMV is implementing a mandatory driving-related reporting requirement to be conducted by doctors and health care providers. Although the reality of surrendering a drivers license is difficult for many older people, this is a necessary step toward road safety.

Occupational therapists are professionals who deal with the occupation of living Ñ they evaluate an individual's visual-spatial, physical and cognitive skills, reaction time and safety judgment as well as the effects these skills have on daily activities, such as dressing, grooming and hygiene.

My colleagues and I have taken our daily life skills evaluation a step further. Because driving safety is one of the most prominent issues among seniors, our rehabilitation staff developed a driver's assessment program that looks at the physical, visual and cognitive skills required to drive and how the person measures up, before even getting in a car.

Doctor intervention in road safety is mandatory, so our proactive approach to driver assessment is an asset to physicians with limited time to spend with each patient.

The driver's assessment program provides objective data that can help a physician make that difficult decision. Test results also assist DMV examiners conducting road tests. They can refer to results and observe an individual's questionable capacities.

What this means for families is that it takes the burden off being 'the bad guy' and hiding car keys. Telling your mom or dad that it's time to surrender her or his license is painful. It's acknowledging the onset of dependence Ñ something no person wants to face.

A benefit of the assessment program is that it can help the family feel right about the decision by showing drivers the reality of how unsafe their capacity is compared to standard requirements. Once people can see this comparison for themselves, acceptance becomes easier.

By working through the assessment process with each individual, we, as the third-party 'authority' health care providers, have an easier time of sharing alternative transportation options. As a resource, we've taken the time to learn about all available options and have information readily available to seniors in this situation.

Most people don't want to give up driving. But as we age, we lose the independent ability to control many things such as the ability to see and hear, continence and our living situation. No longer being able to drive signifies our ultimate loss Ñ freedom. Driving, however, is also the one activity of daily life that affects people beyond just the individual not fully functioning.

The DMV is wise to implement these new requirements. It's not just about freedom, it's about safety. Unfit drivers can harm or kill themselves and others. Being on the road is a privilege, not a right.

Teri Vance is the rehabilitation director of Town Center Village, a retirement community in Southeast Portland. She has been a physical therapist for 17 years. She lives in Sandy.