ECU helps older adults plan for the road ahead

As baby boomers age, some are outliving their ability to drive. That’s why it’s important to have a transportation plan, and East Carolina University occupational therapists are helping older drivers plan for continued independence — with or without a driver’s license.

Dr. Anne Dickerson, professor of occupational therapy who has studied driving more than 25 years, believes vehicles mean much more to baby boomers than just transportation. The baby-boom generation, those born from 1946-1964, was the first to use motor vehicles for social networking — think Sunday drives, drive-in theaters and restaurants.

“When we got our licenses, the world immediately expanded. We grew up with the car — it was only in the 1950s that cars were affordable and available to more families in the U.S.,” said Dickerson, a baby boomer herself. “Today our children and grandchildren connect with the world through technology: the internet and their cellphones, which are almost a part of their bodies.”

Dr. Anne Dickerson is a leading researcher in older adult drivers and developed the Plan for the Road Ahead program at ECU. She recently received the 2020 Governor’s Award for Excellence in Public Service for developing a boot camp for young drivers with autism. (Photo by Rhett Butler)

While research shows drivers in their 60s have the lowest crash rates, fatalities increase with age, especially in drivers over 80. In a recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, data showed that drivers in their 70s are now less likely to be involved in a fatal crash than drivers aged 35-54.

While that’s good news, it’s important to plan for the future, when changes in eyesight or other medical conditions can result in a recommendation to restrict or cease driving, Dickerson said.

“The literature has shown that quality of life and participation in life roles decrease when older adults stop driving,” said Dr. Lynne Murphy, ECU assistant professor of occupational therapy, who is leading a study with older drivers on transportation planning. “We are hoping to help them develop a plan to continue to participate in valued activities and roles by using other means of transportation. We are hopeful that we can reduce that decline for older adults.”

Transportation planning is as important as planning for retirement, Dickerson said, because research shows people outlive their driving ability by six to 10 years.

“No one wants to just stay at home with no options because we cannot drive,” Dickerson said.

Planning includes discussions with family members, friends, church members or senior centers as well as identifying public transportation and ride-sharing services in their community. “Some older adults who try Uber actually find they can go out more,” she said. “For example, if they don’t drive at night — in the winter that is really restrictive — they may start getting rides and learning the process. Of course GoGo Grandparent is a wonderful program.”

Resources vary from town to town. When considering retirement, it may be important to move to an area where there are more resources or family support, Dickerson said.

The literature has shown that quality of life and participation in life roles decrease when older adults stop driving. We are hoping to help them develop a plan to continue to participate in valued activities and roles by using other means of transportation. We are hopeful that we can reduce that decline for older adults.
- Dr. Lynne Murphy, ECU assistant professor of occupational therapy

Area agencies on aging provide information and support, particularly for medical appointments. Faith-based groups should start reaching out to older members in their community, she added. “It may be the older adult can make a contribution to a family member for each trip in order to not feel like it is a burden,” Dickerson said. “Offering the car to a young member of the family in exchange for rides could be an option to try.”

Dickerson recently gave a virtual talk to Nancy Harris’ civic group in Farmville. The presentation hit home: Having recently turned 75, Harris realized she doesn’t have a transportation plan.

She regularly drives to get medicine or groceries, mail letters, go to the library or church, eat out with friends or to pick up her granddaughter from school.


The Plan for the Road Ahead website offers older adults, caregivers and therapists who work with seniors the tools to make transportation plans.

ECU occupational therapists in the College of Allied Health Sciences offer one-on-one services to develop a transportation plan, as well as screenings and evaluations.

ECU also is conducting a paid research study on transportation planning with older adults. Interested? Contact Lynne Murphy at 252-744-6193 or


“These are among the activities which get me out of the house and fill up my days,” she said. “The pandemic has given me a taste of what it is like to stay at home all day for a longer period of time. There’s a big difference between choosing to spend a lazy day at home and having to stay home.”

While her daughter’s family lives close by, they work full time. “I’m fortunate to have a network of friends who live in town,” Harris said. “We help each other with major events such as getting to Greenville doctor appointments or surgery. But nothing is in place on a regular basis.”

Maintaining her eyesight and driving are at the top of Harris’ wish list as she gets older. She has watched several friends go through quick changes in lifestyle because of various eye diseases. “Driving puts me out in the world with others and I enjoy calling friends to ride with me places,” she said.

Harris hopes to model her mother, who was blessed with great eyesight, a positive attitude and sharp mind. She was still driving in Farmville until she died at 95. “I watched over the years as she drove her friends places, ones who had to stop driving long before her,” Harris said. “They called her the ‘designated driver.’”

Harris had retired by the time her mother stopped driving to Greenville or longer distances. She gladly became her mother’s transportation plan, which included taking her to the Division of Motor Vehicles office in Greenville to renew her driver’s license when she was 90.

“I sat in the waiting area while she headed to a cubicle in the back,” Harris said. “We were both nervous (I thought about how my life would change too if she didn’t get that license). I looked up and she was practically skipping as she came around the corner waving that license and just grinning. No 16-year-old I saw come out was any more excited than my Mama!”

Related story: Driving Independence