“The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we all believe that we are above-average drivers.” Dave Barry
Unfortunately, as we age, we may not realize that our driving skills are no longer “above-average,” or even that we are unable to safely operate an automobile. This probably aligns with our reluctance to give up our independence and admit to ourselves and others that help might be needed.
Regarding driving, however — what are the risks and consequences of hanging onto the keys too long, and what are the alternatives?
Physical and Cognitive Challenges and Driving
The aging process can creep up on us without realizing it. Our vision, hearing, reflexes, strength, reaction times, flexibility, and ability to handle new information gradually diminish. The danger is in denying it when it becomes evident. How does this make it dangerous to drive?
- Visual decline affects our depth perception and ability to judge the speed of oncoming traffic. As we age, our eyes lose their ability to process light and become more sensitive to bright light. According to the National Institutes of Health, by age 60 we need three times the amount of light than we did at age 20 to read print. In addition, as our pupils grow smaller with age, it becomes increasingly difficult to see at night, and our peripheral vision diminishes.
- Hearing loss can cause us to miss cues like emergency sirens and honking horns.
- Slower reaction time and less flexibility delay our response times and therefore our ability to control our vehicles. Diabetes, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease and other chronic conditions can lessen our ability to react and control a vehicle quickly.
Medications can slow reaction times and affect judgment. Medication can also cause drowsiness, which sometimes accompanies a person who is aging.
Dementia/cognitive impairment may cause disorientation and delayed reactions to sudden and confusing situations while driving.
Signs to Look For
A ride-along with a family member could reveal some unsafe driving habits, including:
- Drifting into other lanes and abrupt lane changes
- Driving on the shoulder
- Missing exits
- Difficulty reading street or highway signs
- Failing to use turn signals
- Extreme frustration with other drivers
- Poor speed control
- Getting lost in what should be a familiar area
- Nervousness or fear while driving
And statistically, when a motor vehicle accident occurs, the chance for serious injury or death is far greater for seniors than with younger people.
Family Members and the ‘Discussion’
Ideally, the senior will recognize that it is time to stop driving. However, this is not always the case. Driving symbolizes freedom, self-sufficiency, fun, and the ability to remain active in social activities. Family members must recognize that, for decades, Mom and Dad have been able to safely travel where and when they wanted. Now, giving up the car keys feels like a major change in how they define themselves.
What are some positive ways to discuss the issue?
- Ask questions rather than make demands
- Talk about safety issues
- With some gentle prodding, see if they may admit they should not be driving
- Talk about the monetary savings of not owning a vehicle
- Offer rides, and help them set up a network of people who will assist
Be prepared that some seniors will refuse to relinquish the keys. This is a response that cannot be ignored. Possible actions could include:
- Ask a local police officer to explain unsafe driving to your senior
- Take away the keys
- Disable the car
- Remove the car from the home
There are several ways to meet a non-driving senior’s transportation needs:
- Line up volunteers to provide transportation, and have the senior put together a schedule of the transportation services they need. Also, include travel to church and social engagements as well as doctor appointments and trips to the grocery store. It is best for a family member to arrange this to avoid the embarrassment of requiring the senior to call for rides.
- Check out the growing number of home delivery services and assist the senior in using the Internet to order deliveries.
- Taxis and rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft can provide transportation for elderly passengers.
- OATS, Inc. provides specialized transportation services for senior adults, and people with disabilities.
Most senior living communities provide their residents with transportation to medical appointments, for errands, and to other venues and events.
Although losing the ability to drive may seem like you’re losing some of your independence, it actually can free you from the worries of navigating the road. Learn more about seniors and safe driving on our blog.