Testing service is seeing more older drivers
For a quick peek into what lies ahead on the transportation-for-seniors front in the Twin Cities, there's nothing quite like a chat with Connie Shaffer. As the head of Minnesota's largest private driver testing center, Shaffer is at the center of a mini-boom: the business of assessing the capacity of older drivers to keep driving.
For the last eight years, she has managed the Driver Assessment and Training program operated by the nonprofit Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute.
The program measures the driving ability of disabled and elderly persons. About half of those tested are at least 65 years old.
The testing center, based in Golden Valley, is getting more business these days. Shaffer predicts it will do about 1,200 evaluations this year, up from 960 in 2013. Part of the growth is due to the May 2013 merger of the Courage Center, which launched the testing program in 1978, with the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute unit of Allina Health. That merger brought the program under the umbrella of healthcare giant Allina, which has added three testing centers to the eight already operating since the merger.
More growth likely
But the aging population is also driving the increasing stream of clients. In recent years, evaluations have been growing 2 percent to 5 percent. More growth is in the offing, given the growing numbers of elderly people. The older seniors get, the more likely they will encounter health problems — Alzheimer's disease, vision deficiencies, strokes — that limit their driving capacity.
After testing a client, the examiners sometimes find themselves acting as bad news bears, advising the clients to stop driving. "Families laugh, and say, 'That's why we're paying you,' " says Shaffer. It's the flip side of the rite of passage that teenagers go through when they first get the keys to the family car. In this case, the keys are being taken away from long-time drivers.
But Shaffer quickly adds that for older people, losing the car keys is no laughing matter. Nothing can quite replace the independence of climbing in your car, whenever the spirit moves you, to go shopping, to the grocery or anyplace else. So once a person loses that ability, she says, "it's almost like losing electricity in your house. It affects everything you do in some fashion."
Taking away the keys
Mark Skeie, executive director of the Vital Aging Network, a Twin Cities nonprofit, knows the feeling. "One of the toughest things I ever had to do was take the car keys away from my father," he says.
Almost all of the elderly drivers being tested are referred to the center by their families, physicians or other health-care providers. Only a handful come in totally on their own. The center's standard testing package takes three hours and costs $386. The first hour is taken up with clinical testing of vision, physical reactions, quick decision-making and problem-solving, memory and ability to process information. Then comes an hour of driving to test awareness of the environment and ability to follow the rules of the road, retain information and change habits. Finally, examiners discuss the results and recommendations with the clients and their families.
The recommendations fall into three categories: pass without restrictions; pass with restrictions; no more driving. If a driver fails, the institute discourages retesting.
Age is not always indicative of the capacity to drive. "I had a lady just recently who was 92 and she passed with flying colors," Shaffer says.
The tests are far more rigorous than state driving exams, which are mandatory once every four years.
Because so much hinges on the outcome of the testing, people taking the tests are often uneasy when they arrive for the exam. "I didn't sleep at all last night," is a frequent comment. Sometimes those concerns are amplified by the requirement that the drivers being tested can't use their own vehicles. They must use the institute's cars.
Today, Shaffer says physicians are less willing than in the past to revoke a license out of hand, and more likely to offer clients the option of taking the tests and then working from the results of them. Typically, she adds, the test results lead to recommendations for either driving with restrictions or not driving at all.
When bad news has to be delivered, it can be jarring because, as Shaffer says, "Everybody perceives themselves as being a fine driver." But the biggest jolt of all is the loss of the independence that comes with getting behind the wheel.
— Dave Beal