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November 2023    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 49, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Divers of a Certain Age

get your insurance and paperwork in order

from the November, 2023 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In Part I of this story (September 2023), we reported comments from several aging divers actively getting wet around the world without being confronted with age limitations. But it seems at least a few dive operators use age as a criterion to filter out divers.

You're Too Old to Dive With Us

Mark Skeels (Hopatcong, NJ), his wife (1000 dives each), and their 75-year-old friend (with more than 500 dives) arrived on Grand Cayman after making 28 dives in the Sea of Cortez. "Our wetsuits and gear were barely dry when we arrived at Living the Dream," where they had scheduled diving in advance. Skeels and his wife signed in and waited outside when their friend came out "nearly in tears, saying she can't dive this week because she was told she was 'too old.' Apparently, this dive operation refuses divers who are 75 and older regardless of their physical condition or dive history."

This dive operation refuses divers who are 75 and older regardless of their physical condition or dive history.

Skeels says, "We have all seen that person on a dive boat who is in their late forties, significantly overweight, has done a couple of cruise ship dives, the last one five years ago. My wife dived on the Living the Dream boat and witnessed that man needing help to put his gear together; then he did not follow the guide's instructions, went the wrong way, did not stay with the group, and came to the surface early, away from the boat because he had consumed his air in 20 minutes. After multiple attempts to climb the ladder, he was distressed and required a good effort from the deck crew. And the irony is, a 75-year-old woman in good condition, with 28 tough dives in the Sea of Cortez a week before, wasn't allowed on that boat. Refusing to let someone dive because they are old is not the way to go in this industry."

Living the Dream, says Jeffrey Heberley (East Stroudsburg, PA), who has more than 2000 dives, refused him diving based on his age. When he tried to sign up earlier this year, the owner, Liz Frost, emailed him, "I am so very sorry, but we are not able to take divers over the age of 75 years. Our insurance does not cover us, and it has become harder and harder even to get liability insurance anymore. Sorry, we won't get to dive with you."

He responded: "Chronological age is not the same as physical age. When I'm not skiing in winter, I mountain bike about three times a week and hike and kayak throughout the year. I am in better physical shape than most people half my age. I have DA N Enhanced Dive Insurance; I have Blue Cross & Shield medical coverage good outside of the U.S. I sign a liability clause taking full responsibility for my diving, so I don't see how age-related liability should be a factor."

He received no answer. Nor did we to our two emails to Liz. So far, we have been unable to locate any other operator with such insurance limits; if Living the Dream indeed has such a policy, then there must be others as well.

A 72-year-old Korean physician, Dr. Young Cheon Kang, an SSI Instructor Certifier, told us he received a phone call from a 71-year-old woman who wanted to get certified and was turned down twice in the Philippines. He started her private training in confined water and was off to finish up in Anilao, Batangas, Philippines, and "have an older lady fulfill her bucket list . . . . The issue of aging divers is a reality."

Medea Isphording Bern (Hillsborough, CA) and her husband took a day trip on a power catamaran out of Port Douglas, Australia, with probably 100 people, some on their first post-certification dive. "The head divemaster took my 73-year-old former dive instructor and physician husband aside and told him he could not dive, ostensibly because he'd answered truthfully that he takes two different and rather benign medications, but we think it had more to do with his age. He's logged over 1000 dives and just had a medical exam with a clean bill (though he, unfortunately, had not brought a doctor's note); they held fast, even refusing to allow him to talk with their shore doctor. Had we known this the day before, we could have had the doctor's note emailed to us. Our hotel had made this booking, so we'd not consulted Calypso's website, which (now, and perhaps also then, but we will never know) says that if you take prescription meds, you cannot dive. He snorkeled."

From what we can tell from our reader reports and our own experience, dive operations that cater to less experienced divers are more likely to limit older divers than those who attract mainly older, experienced divers.

The Operators Speak

Jeremy Anschel, owner of Cozumel's Living Underwater, says he has conversations with some people to let them know they need someone to dive with them or consider hanging up their fins. "There are different reasons that could create that conversation, and age has not been one of them. Buoyancy, leg strength (if currents were to pick up, they would need someone to help them swim), awareness, memory . . . We can't be 22 forever, even though some try . . . "

The biggest issue, more than age, is weight. I have seen divers that are so grossly overweight they cannot walk without getting out of breath.

Rob Barrel, owner of Fiji's popular Nai'a, says, "While aging is a problem for the dive industry, we haven't had many issues with customers who are too old to dive from a liveaboard. Stan Waterman started diving with us at 72 and did 20 expeditions until he finally hung up his fins. More important than age is health. We have adopted the medical criteria that PADI and others use that includes a self-evaluation of medical issues, including age, that may trigger the need for a doctor's certificate."

Cheryl Babineau and her husband owned a pro scuba dive center in Scott's Valley, CA, and now teach and lead trips. "We are not as concerned with age as with general physical condition. If a diver is over 50, they have to have a medical clearance. We have required medical clearances or refused to take a student when their physical condition is obviously dangerous. The biggest issue, more than age, is weight. I have seen divers that are so grossly overweight they cannot walk without getting out of breath. They cannot get into a boat, especially if conditions get rough and they are so heavy it is impossible to lift them."

Medical Clearance Is a Reality

For as long as I can remember, I've often had to fill out a medical form at a dive operation. It's become more institutionalized, with DAN and the training agencies more involved with the local operators. Even a doctor's letter may be required.

Sally Herbert says, "The only time I was questioned about my age was in Egypt last April. I had to have a doctor write that I was healthy enough. I'm 82 years old, and I've been diving since I was 18. I can out-dive anyone time-wise. Even the Aggressor group still questions my air consumption after 30 trips with them."

Marilyn Allen (Aurora, CO) says, "I'm a very healthy woman diver with over 1000 dives. The only medication I take is occasional aspirin. I just happen to be 77. I've never been refused a dive or dive trip because of my age, but I keep waiting for it to happen. Recently, a company in the Caribbean wanted a doctor's approval, and I guess I'm OK with that, although perhaps they should ask the same of young hotshot young divers who pop in the water with a crashing hangover and can't wait to get to the next drink."

We were told, "You cannot dive at your age because you do not have a recent physical exam signed by your doctor giving you clearance."

As Marie Dieringer (Lexington, MA) found out in Iceland, "If you are 60 years old or older, you need a doctor's note certifying you are safe to dive or snorkel . . . due to extremely cold water (34-37F). I didn't think 60 was' old,' but I had to reschedule until I could get one from my doctor in the U.S." Because of the frigid water, some operators won't accept divers 70 or older.

Many family physicians and internists don't understand what conditions should keep a diver out of the water. Gary Taylor said his doctor "wouldn't fill out PADI's physician's statement, though I have no active problems. I can't risk going to any PADI facility now, and my doctor is just covering his a... "

Divers over 75, maybe even 70, should carry a letter from their doctor certifying they are fit to dive. If their physician is reluctant to provide such a letter, seek out a doctor trained in diving medicine. A call to DAN will get you the names of physicians in your area.

"I am over 70," says Robert Levine (Boynton Beach, FL) ."After my yearly physical, I asked for a signed doctor's note on his letterhead stating, as of my last annual physical,' I see no reason why Robert can't continue scuba diving.' I carry that with my DAN card & C cards. So far, I have not had a dive shop or boat reject me or ask to see the note. But I brought my ammunition."

Furthermore, if you're 75 or older, directly verify with your dive provider before you leave home that you'll be accepted to dive. If you're using a good travel agency like Reef and Rainforest or Island Dreams, you can trust them to handle it. But if you're booking through an online travel agency such as liveaboards.com, contact your destination directly before you pay. It's too risky to fly halfway around the world to find out when you arrive they require a doctor's letter or think you're too old to dive.

And keep in mind, if you get asked, don't get upset. Even fit physicians may be suspect, as William Schlegel (Jefferson City, MO), a retired cardiologist, reported.

"I have been questioned about being too old to dive but have never been prevented from diving. My situation may differ from other divers because I just whip out my Platinum instructor card, DAN hyperbaric medicine referral physician papers, recent dive logs, and other credentials. After that, dive operators have never told me I could not dive.

"But I suspect they could have said no if I didn't have those papers. And saying no to some divers is, at times, appropriate. Some people are too old or 'rusty' from not having been in the water. This is especially true in certain conditions or locations.

"I had an experience at Dressel Divers in Cozumel a couple of years ago. We were blindsided when presenting to the dive shop for what we thought was routine credentialing. We were told, 'You cannot dive at your age because you do not have a recent physical exam signed by your doctor giving you clearance.'

"We were four physicians with a cumulative diving experience of well over 100 years. We asked to use the dive shop's computer and downloaded multiple copies of the DAN-RSTC physical exam for the diving form. Then, we filled out our paperwork, signed each other's forms, and presented the filled-out forms to them. We were certified to dive with Dressel! They didn't care if we were capable divers, just as long as we filled out the appropriate medical-legal-diving paperwork to possibly exempt them from being responsible if there was an incident.

"The issue was that we were over 60 years old. The underlying problem is that there is a real age-related problem for diving fitness. Unfortunately, it's been changed into an ongoing diving-medical-legal-don't hold us responsible for accidents issue."

It's Tougher in Europe

What's happening to European Divers is more stringent than in the U.S. Christian Natalizzi of Eurodivers in Zakynthos, Greece, a five-star PADI operation, told us:

"As a dive operator, it is not up to us to decide anymore. We are simply following what our public liability insurance company is telling us to do. For instance, DAN Europe has strict requirements for divers older than 75. As an operator, we need to obtain DAN's consent for divers from 75 years of age, and DAN requires to see their medical certificates before diving. It can take 2-3 days to get an answer over a weekend. We put clear information on our webpage, advising any divers from 75 years old to send us their medical certificates prior to their trips, and we check with DAN for them to avoid any disappointments. That's just too horrible to have a multi-repeater still in love with diving registering at the counter of the dive center, and we are forced to keep him out of the water until DAN gives us their verdict. But this is the reality today. Without DAN approval, we would lose our liability coverage for these' older' divers."

At 70, DAN US Can Ask Questions

For divers older than 70, Brian Harper, DAN Communications Director, said that DAN could ask a diver applying for diving insurance to submit a medical certificate if "there is an indication that someone may not be fit to dive (injury, chronic illness, etc.). There is currently no medical certification because DAN is still developing the criteria that would need to be included in the certificate from the physician. We want it based on the science so it doesn't unfairly exclude those fit to dive."

If You're 80, No More Dan Dive Accident Insurance

Every diver wants dive accident insurance; however, neither DAN nor Dive Assure will provide it to divers 80 or older.

Brian Harper, the DAN Communications Director, told Undercurrent, "When the program moved to a new carrier in 2019, they required an age limit and wanted to use 70. We convinced them to go to 80. They agreed but want us to put some sort of test in place to see if the 70 - 80-year-olds are fit to dive. We've just not done it yet. . . . . Recognizing that it's fitness, not age, that determines suitability for diving, DAN continues to pursue coverage for divers over 80."

DAN president Bill Ziefle told me that a glitch in DAN's computer system has allowed some 80-year-old divers to renew or sign up for dive accident insurance. The glitch is being corrected, and those divers will be refunded and their policies canceled. He said that DAN would stand behind anyone injured if their policy is still in effect.

Not to Worry

This doesn't mean that divers hitting 80 have to be uninsured. DAN's travel insurance policy - in fact, many commercial travel policies - has no age limitation and provides the four coverages one would be most concerned about: air evacuation for an injury, coverage for chamber treatments, a flight home, and continuing medical care up to the limit of the policy. The policy is expensive. For example, DAN's website shows that a policy covering a two-week, $10,000 trip for an 80-year-old would range between $751-$1077.

Some people don't take out travel policies, figuring they have adequate medical coverage (Medicare does not cover medical treatment overseas). However, they would need individual emergency air evacuation policies available online through Medjet, MASA, and others.

If you were injured in a diving accident abroad, you or your medical aide would have access to DAN's emergency hotline for medical advice, regardless of your insurance.

We asked Dr. Dan Orr, past president of DAN, what he thought about DAN's evolving policies. He said, "I have seen no diving accident data indicating that older divers are at greater risk of diving-related injuries and deaths simply because of their age. I am confident that DAN will continue to advocate for divers of all ages and demonstrate to insurance underwriters that there is no direct correlation between the risk of a diving accident and the age of the diver.

The Day Will Come

I'm sure every diver would agree with Steve Clayman (Toronto, Canada). "If a dive operation has an age limit, it should be stated upfront. I don't care. I just won't go there. If diving over a certain age depends on a doctor's letter, that too should be stated. Having said that, divers should know their limits and assess the conditions before taking the plunge. There is a degree of self-responsibility in this sport."

No one ever expects their diving days to end. But they will. And as one ages, it's worth giving it some thought, as has Jerry Beeler (Trabuco Canyon, CA), "My wife and I are both in our latter 60s. I have been certified for over fifty years, with over 700 dives. We are generally fit and can handle most diving encounters. Strong currents are challenging, but they always have been. We carefully manage our diving, avoid cattle boat operations, and pay extra for small groups and private dive masters. We keep in mind every dive might be our last; it's a sport where the clock is ticking. Snorkeling is in our future at some point."

- Ben Davison

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