A recent article in Bloomberg exploded the myth that Americans stick to their trusty old clunkers upon retirement; apparently, plenty of the 36 million senior drivers today are leaving the showroom with a snazzy new set of wheels!
Today’s seniors have their roots firmly in the age of driving. Driving equals independence in the minds of most. But physical or intellectual impairment and even the normal changes of aging can make driving less safe, or unsafe, for older adults. It seems that every week, we see a news story about a senior who has caused a bad accident. When it comes to older drivers, what’s true and what’s not? Here are some of the myths and truths about these senior motorists:
Myth #1: All seniors are bad drivers.
Fact: A while back, a British automobile association suggested that seniors equip their cars with “Granny on Board” stickers, to warn other drivers. This suggestion was met with much protest by older drivers, and with good reason: Despite the clichés, many older adults are good drivers, with years of driving experience behind them. Yet visual impairment, hearing loss, lessened manual dexterity and memory loss make it harder to be safe on the road. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that the risk of being killed or injured in a motor vehicle crash increases as we age. The key is to regularly assess one’s driving abilities to honestly judge whether it’s still safe to be behind the wheel. An occupational therapist or other expert can help evaluate a senior’s driving abilities.
Myth #2: Seniors won’t change their driving habits until they have a bad accident.
Fact: It is true that an accident—or ticket—can be a wake-up call for an older driver. But experts say that many seniors are aware of their limitations, and they self-restrict their driving accordingly. As night vision lessens, they give up night driving while continuing to drive during the day. They stick to familiar routes, and avoid busy highways and the more congested hours of the day. They might drive to a nearby Park-and-Ride lot and take the bus for the longest leg of a trip. When seniors continue to drive in unsafe conditions, that’s a problem. But a study from University of Colorado School of Medicine found that most older adults agree that they would stop driving if their doctor or family members believe it is unsafe—and would even favor an “advance directive for driving” where a loved one could make the decision for them.
Myth #3: If a senior senses their driving abilities have lessened, they should stop driving right away.
Fact: In some cases, giving up the car is the best choice. But there are steps seniors can take to extend their capability as safe drivers. Senior driving classes are available through the AARP, the AAA, senior centers and other organizations. Adding safety features like better mirrors and new windshield wipers can make the car safer to operate. And it could be that the car just isn’t a good fit anymore. If it’s large and difficult to maneuver, check out smaller cars that are easier to drive and park. Today’s cars have some safety features that seem like they could have been designed for older adults, such as backup cameras and warning sensors. And then there’s that other “machine”—our bodies. For example, the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence offers an online exercise program to improve the flexibility and range of motion needed for safe driving.
Myth #4: You shouldn’t hurt your older loved one’s feelings by mentioning your concerns.
Fact: The conversation about driving is one of the toughest ones we can have with our older loved ones. But it’s an important conversation to have. Sharing your concerns might help your loved one avoid a serious injury to themselves and others. If your loved one becomes defensive, try to express your concerns as problem-solving: “We worry that you might not be safe behind the wheel, but we recognize the value of your independence and want to brainstorm with you ways you can continue to be independent.” Suggest that your loved one talk to the doctor about a driving evaluation, and ask if you can participate in the conversation. (Under normal circumstances, you cannot do so without a signed release from your loved one.) Worst case, if your loved one absolutely refuses to discuss the issue and you feel they are a danger to themselves and others, you can contact the local DMV to find out what to do.
Myth #5: If a senior has to give up the car keys, they will be stuck at home.
Fact: It takes a little research, but most older adults are able to access acceptable alternative transportation in the community. Learn about public transportation options. There might be a perfect bus line or subway stop near your loved one’s home. Many communities offer senior orientation classes for older adults to help them navigate the transit system routes and vehicles. Once seniors get the hang of it, they often enjoy being transportation-savvy! Special transit is available for seniors with disabilities. And once your loved one has figured out how much money giving up the car will save, taking a taxi or Uber might seem very affordable. If your family has hired home care services to support your loved one’s well-being, remember that professional home care doesn’t only happen at home. Your caregiver can drive your loved one to the places they want to go.
For More Information
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers information and resources for older drivers and their families.
Want to learn about alternate senior transportation while giving your brain a good workout? Try your hand at the “On the Go” wordfind puzzle in the Oct/Nov issue of “Hand and Hand.”