Hitting the Road Later in Life

Transportation options for an aging population a growing concern across the valley

Whether it’s the long distances, rough roads or harsh weather, transportation in Montana has long been a challenge. It can be especially hard for older residents facing medical conditions that can hinder their ability to operate a motor vehicle safely.

According to AAA, in 2030 nearly 90 percent of America’s 70 million citizens 65 and older will have drivers’ licenses, up from the 33 million in 2009. Motor vehicle accidents are the second leading cause of accidental death for Americans 65 and older.

Of Montana’s more than 780,000 licensed drivers, nearly 160,000 of them are over the age of 65.

Montana is one of more than a dozen states that do not place any restrictions on drivers. A doctor, however, has the ability to take away a senior’s license.

Before that can happen, the driver usually meets with someone like Denise Zander, an occupational therapist at Summit Medical Fitness Center in Kalispell. Zander said physicians usually recommend that patients take a driving evaluation after a major medical event, including strokes or a dementia diagnosis. Physicians even recommend an evaluation after procedures like hip replacements to ensure the driver still has the ability to quickly hit the brakes.

Evaluations usually start with vision and cognitive testing before the driver gets behind the wheel. In the past, Zander would take the driver on to the open road in a vehicle outfitted with a passenger-side brake, but today she can have them strap into a driving simulator. The Summit recently purchased the simulator after seeing an increase in the number of driving evaluations. Zander said in years past she might only conduct one evaluation every few months, but now she’s conducting them multiple times each month. The simulator has three computer screens providing a 180-degree view of the road ahead.

“This is a great way to work with a client without having to get on the road. It’s a lot safer option,” she said. “With this simulator we can complete an evaluation without putting anyone’s safety at risk.”

The simulator has various programs that allow the driver to cruise through a city setting or country landscape. During the simulation the driver has to avoid obstacles such as pedestrians and other vehicles. After the evaluation, Zander makes a recommendation to the doctor about whether the patient should drive in the future. In some cases, she may recommend the driver be restricted to only operating a motor vehicle in certain areas or times of day. A doctor has the ultimate say in whether someone should retain his or her license.

Having a license revoked does not mean someone is stranded. Eagle Transit, operated by Flathead County’s Agency on Aging, has emerged as a reliable transportation option for the valley’s older residents. Agency on Aging Director Lisa Sheppard said the transit service provides more than 90,000 rides annually and 36 percent of all passengers are over the age of 60. Besides inner-city service in Kalispell and city-to-city service between Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls, Eagle Transit also has a Dial-A-Ride service allowing people with additional needs to be picked up at their home and taken to their final destination. Sheppard said 56 percent of Dial-A-Ride users are over the age of 60.

Sheppard said the transit service is looking at ways to expand its offerings as the valley’s population continues to get older.

“We’re looking at a rapid rise in the number of older people who live in the Flathead Valley and so we’re planning for the future,” she said. “We’re always looking for funding sources and for ways to reconfigure our services to better serve our passengers.”