He first noticed the problem last year, as he tooled around town in his Oldsmobile.
Stop signs and other road markers were tougher to read, so Rod Conser, 76, gave up driving for a month until successful cataract surgery helped the Omaha man get back on the road.
“I had to be safe,” he said.
Doctors and therapists say medical advances such as more effective cataract surgeries and better arthritis treatments are allowing more older drivers to stay behind the wheel longer.
That's one reason demand has grown for programs that evaluate the skills of older drivers, local hospitals say. Methodist Hospital launched a new program in April, joining those already run by Alegent Health and Creighton University Medical Center.
Older people are keeping their licenses longer and driving more miles than in the past. Federal figures show nearly 22 million licensed drivers 70 and older in 2008, a number up from 18 million a decade earlier.
Therapists who run the programs say it was easier 20 or 25 years ago to determine when or whether an elderly driver should hang up the keys for good.
Now it's “not black and white,” said Jenny Spegel, who runs the evaluation program at Alegent's Immanuel Rehabilitation Center.
Dr. Kristine McVea, chief medical officer at OneWorld Community Health Centers in Omaha, said it's not just drugs and surgery helping. She said more doctors are aware of the benefits of physical therapy and exercise to improve the strength and flexibility of older people.
“They are in a lot better shape than their counterparts ... a generation ago,” she said.
Conser, for example, went through physical therapy to improve his balance.
Demand for evaluation programs also has risen and is expected to keep growing because of the aging baby boom generation. Immanuel's program, for example, now provides 650 to 700 evaluations annually, up from 400 six or seven years ago, said Spegel, a certified driver rehabilitation specialist.
Families often struggle over whether an elderly parent or grandparent should continue driving. They sometimes take desperate measures, hiding keys or disconnecting battery cables.
Older motorists have years of driving experience on their side. Drivers 65 and older in Nebraska, Iowa and nationally actually have lower crash rates per capita than teens. But drivers and passengers 85 and older are less likely to survive crash injuries than younger motorists. Nearly 4,000 people ages 70 and older died in vehicle crashes in 2009.
Slower reaction times and other physical changes such as memory loss and medical conditions can cause older drivers to have traffic accidents.
In one recent case, a car driven by an 84-year-old man crashed through the wall of a nursing home in Denison, Iowa, striking a 92-year-old woman who later died from her injuries. Police said the driver had a medical condition that contributed to the crash.
McVea said an evaluation can help drivers and families decide when it's time to give up the keys or to restrict driving to daytime only or neighborhood trips.
The programs at Methodist, Immanuel and Creighton include testing of memory, vision and reaction times, along with knowledge of driving rules and a behind-the-wheel evaluation.
McVea said a doctor may know that a patient's reflexes have slowed or that memory loss or vision problems have developed, but it's often difficult to tell how those problems affect a person's driving without seeing that person behind the wheel.
“It's tough for doctors to make the call on their own,” she said.
Conser went through the evaluation program at Methodist. A doctor had recommended it because of a neurological condition affecting his movement.
The occupational therapist who evaluated Conser noticed that he couldn't turn his neck well enough to check traffic when changing lanes.
The therapist recommended a special rear-view mirror that helped solve his problem. The curved mirror gives him a better view of traffic lanes on his right and left sides, said Kelli Eaton, director of therapy services at Methodist.
Conser is glad he doesn't have to give up the keys. He says he plans to drive this month with his wife, Annette, to Wisconsin for their grandsons' graduation and Eagle Scout ceremony.
“I like a good road trip.”
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