In order to keep the growing diocesan population of retired priests safe and ensure the safety of all who use Western New York's streets and expressways, the diocese has teamed with the Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo to make sure priests, ages 80 and older, stay safe on the road.
For 30 years, ECMC has offered a driver rehabilitation program to help Western New York seniors and their families make decisions about safe driving. It includes a two-part assessment with both an in-clinic and behind-the-wheel evaluation. Under supervision of an occupational therapist with advanced training in driver rehabilitation, drivers either pass, pass with restrictions or fail. In the latter two instances, ECMC offers help for the driver in making adjustments or providing alternate options for transportation.
"The diocese came to us a few years back and said, 'You know, our priests are aging, just like the general community, and we are concerned about their driving safety. What is your program?'" Lisa Thorpe, an occupational therapist and supervisor for outpatient rehabilitation at ECMC, said. "Basically, we look at a person's ability to continue driving, or resume driving after any illness, injury or functional age-related decline. In the area of the priests, it was age and functional decline impacting their driving performance."
John Scholl, director of insurance services for the Diocese of Buffalo, said implementing the program came as the result of "many months of planning and meetings." A task force looked into a number of issues involving retired priests, one of which was driving after a certain age level. The need for testing was magnified by the fact that the diocese is responsible for insuring vehicles that the priests drive.
"Following Bishop Richard J. Malone coming on board, and then Bishop Edward M. Grosz taking over, he kind of ran with this as part of the whole priest retirement benefits," Scholl said.
Scholl, who was in charge of planning the driver evaluation program, said the diocese looked at several alternatives and decided that ECMC's program was "clearly the best program for (them) to consider." They brought in Thorpe and another occupational therapist, Maria McLaughlin, to give a presentation on the highlights of the program. Although ECMC gives referrals at a variety of ages based on discretion, the diocese decided to begin testing at the age of 80 and every three years thereafter.
Although the diocese insures some of the vehicles its women religious drive, most orders now provide their own insurance for their sisters. Some orders also use ECMC's program, Scholl said.
The diocese had a total of 34 priests go through the driver rehabilitation program. As priests in their late 70s continued to turn 80, they were notified they would need to complete the evaluation. Three of the priests who took the test failed. Six more priests, upon learning they would be tested, decided to voluntarily give up their licenses. They found one eligible priest who had suffered a stroke and is now wheelchair-bound, so he did not need to take the test since he would no longer be able to drive anyway.
Father Donald Measer, priest-in-residence at St. Amelia Parish in Tonawanda, was one priest who had participated in the program. "The lady that I was with was very helpful, and I had a lot of respect for her," he said, although the program's stipulation that he use a car ECMC provided, rather than his own car, made it more difficult for him. Although he passed, he received a restriction on nighttime driving.
"(The program) can reevaluate our ability to drive. Probably some of us, at our age, ought not to drive," Father Measer said. "I think it is sponsored by the insurance companies, so they're very concerned about paying benefits for people who should be off the road."
Additionally, Father Walter Matuszak, who received a restriction on nighttime and expressway driving, called the testing "very, very thorough," and learned something new about his driving.
"I thought I was a pretty good driver, and then I found out. I'm 83 years of age, but my eyes are getting dim. You don't realize this as you are going along, so (the examiner) said, 'It'd be better if you could not drive at night,'" he commented. "Getting onto the thruway, I was a little hesitant, so she said, 'You're a little nervous going on the thruway. I'd stay away from the thruway if you can.'"
In addition to this program, the diocese also promotes "proactive risk management" in diocesan schools, churches, and other institutions, and offers New York State's six-hour defensive driving course to all priests at no cost. When asked about the feedback he has received, Scholl said the majority of the feedback he has gotten, from ECMC and priests, about the driver rehabilitation program has been positive.
"Not every single bit of it was good, as you would expect. It's a tough situation, but I would say overall, the feedback has been very, very positive. They agree it's good to do this. A lot of them were saying they were relieved, in a way, to say, 'Now I know.' A lot of them felt very uncomfortable driving," Scholl said. "I think it really shows a whole proactive approach in the risk-management arena."
"What we're offering to the diocese is really what we're offering to the general community. We're an aging community in Western New York. Erie County outpaces New York State and the national average for our aging population," Thorpe concluded. "This is a program the diocese chose to use, but really it's beneficial to the entire Western New York community."
For more about ECMC's driver rehabilitation program, call 716-898-4347 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.