Whether we are going to the grocery store, the doctor's office, the golf course or to visit a friend, the ability to drive provides us a sense of independence. But as we age, we lose (some of us more gradually than others) physical and mental capabilities essential to safe driving, such as vision, hearing, mental acuity, muscle strength and dexterity.
There likely will come a time when, for safety's sake, we have to give up driving. Until then there are ways to compensate for some of the changes that come with aging and to continue to drive safely. These include refresher driving courses for seniors, provided by driving schools, through senior citizen centers and healthcare providers. One example is DriveOn, a program of the Rochester (NY) Rehabilitation Center that combines driving skills evaluation with training.
A Car That Fits
Driving a car with senior-friendly features can make a big difference. The American Automobile Association (AAA) and the National Older Driver Research and Training Center at the University of Florida in Gainesville recommend cars that have such features as adjustable pedals, power-operated seats, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, four doors and an accommodating entry height, large or wide-angle mirrors, brake assist, lumbar support, adjustable seatbelts, keyless entry and start, and stability control.
A program called CarFit® provides seniors free 15-minute car "fittings" to determine whether they can be comfortably and safely seated in their car in relation to mirrors, the steering wheel, headrest, pedals and controls. The program was developed by the American Society on Aging in collaboration with AAA, AARP and the American Occupational Therapy Association. A trial of the program found that 37 percent of participating seniors had at least one critical safety issue. Ten percent did not have proper spacing between the steering wheel and their chest. About 20 percent did not have adequate line of sight over the steering wheel.
Retiring from Driving
Just as we make plans to retire from work-possibly transitioning from full-time to part-time employment before full retirement-it is important to look ahead to retiring from driving. In fact, many seniors choose to limit their driving as they encounter physical and cognitive changes. For instance, they may decide to drive only in daylight when vision impairment makes night-time driving difficult. Or they may decide to drive only in town when high-traffic situations become stressful.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reported in a recent study that more seniors are self-limiting their driving and surmises that this could account in part for another finding: Fewer drivers 70 and older died in crashes and fewer were involved in fatal collisions from 1997 through 2006 than in years past, even though this segment of the population grew 10 percent.
It is essential that family and friends of a senior approach with compassion a discussion about driving-being sensitive to the senior's need to maintain independence. Also approach the subject from a concern for the senior's and others' safety.
Easing the Transition
Seniors often fear that when they give up the keys they give up their lifestyle, being able to see friends, go shopping and take part in other activities they enjoy. Family and professional caregivers can help make the transition from driving seem less threatening to independence by offering workable options. This could be as simple as taking a parent on a once-a-week outing for recreation and errands, coordinating other transportation or arranging for delivery of groceries and other needed goods.
In-home care providers like Comfort Keepers® also provide seniors transportation to activities, doctor's appointments and shopping, as part of their in-home services.
When it comes to a senior who is reluctant to limit or stop driving, despite obvious danger signs, a second opinion from an authority or the counsel of a respected friend, such as a pastor, may be helpful. A friend who has already given up driving can offer the reassuring voice of experience.
Many motor vehicle bureaus offer assessment services for elderly drivers. The senior's physician may also provide an evaluation and a prescription to cease driving due to safety concerns.
As a last resort-particularly for those who cannot remember that they are not supposed to drive-taking away the keys and removing the car or disabling it may be the only solution.