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AARP and volunteers work to keep older people independent as they age

TOWN 'N COUNTRY

Joyce Sheets and JoAnn Olson have friends who have lost their licenses, or had their kids take away their car keys, because they've grown too old to drive safely. • "I fear it, because without my wheels, I would be lost,'' said Sheets, 73. • "That's got to be one of the worst things to do — give up your car,'' said Olson, also 73. • That's why the two friends took part in a program Thursday designed to help older people stay both on the road and in their homes longer. AARP brought the CarFit and HomeFit training events to the Town 'N Country Senior Center in light of a 2010 AARP study that showed nearly 90 percent of Americans 45 and older are eager to remain in their homes and communities as long as they possibly can. AARP is conducting these seminars throughout Florida and the rest of the country.

As some 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day, the issue of continued independence looms large for a vast segment of the population. People who are now 70 are likely to outlive their ability to drive by six to 10 years, noted Dennis McCarthy, a professor of occupational therapy at Nova Southeastern University in Tampa. His students worked as volunteer trainers at the CarFit event, which is also sponsored by AAA Auto Club and the American Occupational Therapy Association.

Sheets and Olson said CarFit taught them things they didn't know. Sheets learned that because steering wheels have changed, she should now place her hands at the 8 o'clock and 4 o'clock positions for better control instead of the 10 and 2 spots. Volunteers showed Olson a feature she didn't know her car had, a lever to raise the seat straight up and down.

A swarm of volunteers checked out Bill Guerra's comfort in his 2011 Cadillac. They found that his steering wheel was in the correct position, his knees just the right level below the dashboard and his eyes at the perfect level over the wheel. His seat belt was riding too high, however, so a volunteer showed Guerra how to make the adjustment where the belt is bolted to the car's body. And his side mirror was improperly positioned, making it impossible for him to see a car moving into his blind spot. The therapists even showed him exercises he could do to relieve the stress of driving in heavy traffic, such as on Dale Mabry Highway.

"I call it 'Snail Mabry' because it's so slow, and people will rush by me from either lane, and they'll just squirt in front of me and maybe 1,000 feet later we all reach the same red light.''

Guerra, a 67-year-old retiree who lives alone, said he planned to also take part in the HomeFit program, conducted inside the senior center.

Carolyn Sithong, an occupational therapist who conducts the HomeFit programs for AARP, said a lot of times people don't fully appreciate how conditions in their home restrict them.

"So (it's) kind of removing these barriers that are problematic, like low toilet seats, narrow doorways, steps, how to deal with lighting, things like that to make the environment work for you as you get older.''

In many cases, they can make a big difference through changing small things, like removing throw rugs that may slide or keeping a night-light on in every room of the house.

McCarthy said it's an ongoing effort to get people to take steps before problems arise.

"We don't plan for those last years. When we go buy our last house, we don't see if there's public transportation nearby, how we're going to get around. So that's part of it, too. We're trying to educate people to start thinking about these things, 'cause there's likely to be a time in your life when you won't be able to drive anymore.''

Philip Morgan can be reached at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

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