When Should Seniors Give Up Driving

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The National Institute on Aging estimates that over a half million seniors age 70 and over give up driving annually. And there are many more who should stop driving but don’t. It’s a difficult situation that seniors and their families find themselves in.

Seniors tend to be a thoughtful, safety-conscious group on the whole. So why would they continue to drive when they are afraid or suspect it’s unsafe? Because there’s more involved with senior driving than the safety issue. It’s really about independence. Most seniors feel that losing driving privileges means losing independence and loss of independence is one thing seniors work to avoid, sometimes at all costs. Many seniors deny their real limitations and driving difficulties long after driving has become dangerous for them.

How does age change a person’s ability to drive? The body naturally changes over time:

Senses – eyesight and hearing can become impaired. Often the loss is so gradual and the person is so accustomed to compensating for it that the senior doesn’t realize how poor his/her hearing and sight have become. Common compensations are to stop driving at night or on the highway because darkness and high speed makes it more difficult to see signs, traffic lanes and turns. Instead many seniors choose to drive only during the day and on back streets they are more familiar with.

Movement – joints may become stiff and muscles weaken. As people age we tend to give up the “heavy work” and our muscle strength reduces to match our lack of activity.

Response Time- reflexes slow causing reduced response time to high speed traffic and unexpected situations.

Decision Making- high speed traffic, unfamiliar territory, and aggressive drivers can raise a senior’s stress level causing uncertainty and impaired decision making.

Medical conditions can compound these changes:

Cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, diabetes affect vision and, left untreated, can cause blindness.

Arthritis, Parkinson’s Disease and stroke related paralysis reduce the ability to move within the vehicle. This may make it difficult to turn on windshield wipers or turn to look behind for lane changes and backing up

Diabetes, Depression, and interrupted sleep patterns can affect mood, attention and response time

Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias affect a person’s thinking and behavior.

How do we know when it’s time to give up driving? This is the question that really requires the senior to be honest with himself or herself. There’s no magic age to hanging up your keys. Some folks find they have to stop driving at 60 while others can drive safely into their 90’s. Here are some things for seniors to ask themselves before making the big decision:

  1. Do other drivers often honk their horns at me?
  2. Have I had some accidents? Even small scratches or “fender benders”?
  3. Do I get lost, even on roads I know well?
  4. Do other cars and pedestrians seem to “appear out of nowhere”?
  5. Have family, friends or my doctor expressed concern about my driving?
  6. Do I drive less these days because I’m not as sure about my driving as I used to be?

If the senior answers “yes” to any of these questions, it’s time to think seriously about their driving safety.

If the senior answers “no” to all of these questions, it’s very important to have hearing and vision checked regularly and talk with a doctor about any conditions that may affect driving. These actions will help seniors drive safely longer.

Is there life without driving? While loss of driving privileges is a traumatic change, it is often necessary for the safety of the senior driver, potential passengers and the public. The good news is that giving up driving doesn’t have to mean losing independence or social connection. It’s a lack of planning and knowledge of options that leads seniors to lose hope when they stop driving. The keys to helping our seniors cope with the inability to drive are planning and experience.

There are a number of driving options available to most seniors. These include friends and family, public transportation, taxi service, non-emergency ambulance service, companion care, and limousine. These options differ greatly in cost and convenience. And certainly there are other aspects to consider like reliability, comfort, friendliness, security and cleanliness of each option as well. And it’s important to compare the costs and benefits of other transportation options with the cost of having a personal vehicle.

Transportation Type Convenience Schedule / response time Personalization / Familiarity Cost
Ambulance-non emergency Low Moderate Low-moderate Very high
Companion Care High High High Moderate
Family/Friend Moderate Moderate High Low
Limousine High Moderate Moderate High
Personal Car High High High High
Public Transportation Low Low Low Low
Taxi Service Moderate Moderate Low Moderate

Don’t know what options are available in your area? Seniors should get together with family members to help determine what transportation is needed. Create a weekly schedule of outings based on your senior’s social and personal activities. Check with local agencies such as the Area Agency on Aging and local senior centers. Church and civic groups may also offer senior ride services. And don’t let the senior think calling for a ride will put anyone out… that’s what the services are there for! It’s helpful if a family member or friend accompanies the senior the first time they use a new transportation option – new things can be a little scary the first time around. It’s always easier to experience something new with a trusted friend.
Think you can’t afford companion service, taxi’s and busses? First, see if they offer a senior fare or discount. Then take a hard look at what it costs to keep your automobile on the road these days. Check the cost of insurance, upkeep and, of course, that pricey gasoline. Total up the cost for 1 year. Then divide by 12 months, or 52 weeks. You may be surprised by how much you have available to spend on an alternate form of transportation!

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