For most of us, the automobile represents independence, control and mobility. Most of today’s seniors built their lives around the ability to drive wherever they wanted—to work, to visit friends, to shop, to their faith community and on vacation.
Yet the normal changes of aging can make driving more challenging. Hearing loss, vision problems, decreased reaction time, memory loss and lessened manual dexterity are all limitations that tend to increase as a person ages.
Seniors and their loved ones should discuss driving safety, and periodically assess driving abilities to honestly judge whether the senior adult is safe behind the wheel. There may come a point when any one of these conditions or a combination of several makes it difficult and risky to keep driving.
Some older drivers become increasingly nervous about their driving ability, and consequently become less mobile in the community. Some keep driving until an incident occurs—a scare, a minor accident, or worse—and then quit driving abruptly, without having made plans for what they will do without the car. And others are in denial, refusing to face up to limitations until family members or the department of licensing step in.
Seniors who have successfully made the transition from being a driver urge others to plan ahead and be proactive. One 84-year-old man who abruptly stopped driving after an accident counsels, “Don’t wait for circumstances to make decisions for you!”
If you are a senior driver, or you are planning to have a conversation with an elderly loved one about their driving, here are some important things to remember:
Giving Up Driving Doesn’t Mean Giving Up Mobility
The first thing to do is to add up the cost of owning and maintaining a car. Car payments, insurance, repairs, gasoline, parking fees—all these should go into your calculation. For most people, the total is considerable. Think of those dollars as money available for alternative transportation.
- Knowing your loved one has this “transportation allowance” available, begin to calculate the alternatives, and ask your loved one these questions:
- Do you live on or near a bus or rapid transit route? Where are the places you can conveniently travel using public transportation? If you’ve never explored your local bus, subway or light rail, take a field trip! Just hop on and take a ride some day, making sure you know how to return to the same spot. Look for grocery stores, dry cleaners, other shopping possibilities along the route.
- Do you have family or friends who might enjoy giving you a ride to church, to your doctor’s office, to the barber or beauty shop, or on a weekly shopping trip?
- Is there special transportation for seniors in your area? Where will they take you? How convenient is it? How much lead time is needed to use this service?
- How much do cab rides cost to your usual destinations? Will a cab company take “standing assignments” on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis? Once you have figured out how the first three modes of transportation will work, use taxi cabs to fill in the blanks.
- Don’t forget walking! We get in the habit of driving, even though some local destinations are near and provide a little extra exercise.
With this kind of planning, many seniors lose their anxiety over giving up driving. It may not be easy, but having a workable plan for getting where you want to go is a major step forward.
When the time comes to put away the keys, be creative in your approach. Encourage your loved one to try:
- Leaving the car in the garage for a while and see how they get along not using it.
- Setting a trial period for trying out transportation options.
- Giving the car to a favorite charity or a grandchild.
- Selling the car and using the money for an alternate transportation fund.
When seniors and families first begin to have concerns about the senior’s driving, that is the time to begin planning a post-driving strategy. Think of this as just another challenge to be addressed, and then put your heads together, using your best problem-solving skills to keep your senior loved one active and mobile.
Giving up the car doesn’t mean giving up mobility. Learn more about transportation options in your community.
What’s the Role of Family?
Don’t let the topic of driving safety become a “taboo” subject in your family. Seniors have the right to make their own decisions as long as they’re able, including the decision to keep driving. But family members have the right, and the responsibility, to be concerned about the safety of their loved one and of strangers who might be hurt in an accident. There is obvious potential for conflict here, but you shouldn’t let it reach that point. Be willing to talk candidly about the issue, and be open to some risk-reducing compromises. Work together to create a plan that respects while it protects.
For More Information
Older Driver Safety Awareness Week is sponsored by the American Occupational Therapy Association. Visit their website to learn more about strategies for keeping seniors safe on the road
The National Center on Senior Transportation offers information for older adults, caregivers and transportation providers to promote the greatest independence and mobility for seniors in the community.