SPECIAL REPORT: Should your elderly parents keep driving?

SPECIAL REPORT: Should your elderly parents keep driving? part 1
Published: Nov. 2, 2016 at 9:29 PM EDT|Updated: Jan. 10, 2017 at 3:42 PM EST
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COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - Taking care of elderly parents can present challenges for many families, especially when it comes to the point where they can no longer drive.

"I've driven since I was 12 and a half years old. The Sheriff and them had to overlook it because my dad died and my mother couldn't drive," said 85-year-old Laverne Wright.

However, the smooth coasting came to an end for Wright last year when she experienced a life-threatening medical emergency. While the stroke-like symptoms were never officially diagnosed, the doctor did seem sure of one thing: Laverne could not continue living the life she was used to.

It's often a a battle between independence and safety. Caring for aging parents can be a difficult journey, especially when deciding if they can safely stay behind the wheel.

"My daughter took that to heart, and said you can't drive anymore and you can't live alone," said Wright, "At that point I wasn't fighting it too much because I wasn't full recovered."

However, after moving into an assisted living facility and going through a lengthy recovery, her attitude changed.

"Oh it was chaotic, upsetting, depressing. I just didn't have much self-esteem. I'm so used to being independent" said Wright.

Laverne knew two things. She wanted to drive again, and she wanted to move back home.

"I kept saying, 'I don't need to be here anymore, I don't want to be here anymore,'" Wright said. 

That's when Al Barber, owner of Barber's Driving School in Columbus, came into the picture.

"Because of the increased number of seniors who are involved in crashes and being killed in car wrecks, we decided to join up with the Department of Public Health. I became a member of their task force for injury prevention for older drivers, and I agreed to help develop a program for the state that could be cookie-cut," said Barber.

Barber and his team say they've been giving senior-driver evaluations for the last 40 years. Now, they're working to create a system that they say doesn't exist in Georgia, to help find out if older or disabled drivers can continue hitting the roads.

"Right now there is no legal obligation for anyone, including your doctor, to make a medical referral, saying that you're not stable to drive anymore in Georgia," said Barber.

The six-hour evaluation and driving course refresher has six in-depth parts. First, Barber and his staff will look into the history of the driver in question; talking to care-givers and family members. Step two is to evaluate their legal history and if they have the right to drive in Georgia. Then comes a cognitive test in the office, which includes brain games and puzzles.

Step four includes a series of tests for balance, strength, eyes, and reaction time. Barber has a machine that judges how quick you can put on the break in an emergency.

News Leader 9's Emilie Arroyo had a reaction time that happened to be just 0.04 of a second faster than Wright.

"You're way below the national average, of 3/4 of a second, 0.75. You're scoring right in there with the teenagers," Barber told Arroyo.

Wright did too. At 85, she is beating national averages, taking about half a second to react.

In step five Barber runs a driver's medical prescriptions through a database to flag any possible side effects that could affect them on the road. Finally, Barber applies information from all the above into an in-car driving test.

Turns out both Wright and Arroyo are equally fit and safe to coast the roads of Columbus, showing age sometimes has nothing to do with it.

"So not necessarily because mom and dad are making driving errors does that mean that it's related necessarily to their age or mental condition. It could just be bad driving habits which we all form over a long period of time," said Barber.

The green light from Barber's driving school totally changed Laverne's life. She's now mobile and independent again, and getting back into the groove of life at home.

"It's wonderful, ah! It is so wonderful to be able to sleep in a little bit, or to eat whenever you want to eat, not at set times," said Wright.

While Barber says about 75 percent of his evaluations have resulted in an elderly driver being able to extend the time they can drive, it's not always the case.

"We're coming down I-185 South, and I asked the gentleman, 'sir do you know how fast you're traveling, how fast you're going?' Well he said 'no, no, I don't really know,' and I said, 'well look at your speedometer and tell me.' He said, 'well, where's that?' He said, 'aw no, I don't have to worry about that because Iris, always tells me if I'm driving too fast or too slow.'," said Barber.

That man in his late 90's not only failed his evaluation, he also highlighted a dangerous disconnect in enforcing the results.

"The wife, Iris, is in hospice and she's 80 something, and she's not doing well. He actually had moved into the hospice to be with her. She had Alzheimer's and maybe something else. And I get a call from the nurse at hospice saying, 'Mr.Barber, didn't you tell the preacher he couldn't drive any longer, that he failed his evaluation?' I said, 'I certainly did!' And she says 'oh my god he wants the car keys and I told him, didn't Mr.Barber tell you, you can't drive anymore?' 'Well I don't care, Mr.Barber said I couldn't but the state has not sent me the letter. When I get the letter from the state, I'll accept it and I'll quite driving. But I still have my license now give me my car keys.' 'And she asked me what can I do?' I said, 'well frankly he's correct, he does have the legal right to drive.'," said Barber.

Barber also says he hopes to have a full system in place within the next few months, to help local and state lawmakers address these issues-,and conduct fair and objective screenings. He also believes the evaluation will help families on a personal level to be able to talk about a sometimes sensitive and emotional process. .

"It's better for an adult child to send them out to a professional evaluator. Let us, if we need to tell them, that they're not safe to drive any longer, they'll take it from us a lot better," said Barber.

Barber's Driving School is working to recruit volunteers. They're organizing a community outreach program to help elderly residents who can no longer drive, get to places like the doctor's office, church, and grocery store.

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