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When Should Older Drivers Stop Driving?

One of the most emotionally charged challenges facing older adults is the potential loss of driving privileges.

You know the typical losses that many elderly might experience—loss of a spouse, loss of health, loss of one's home, loss of financial resources, loss of elderly friends and pets, etc. Right up there with those losses, the idea of turning in one's car keys can elicit anxiety, resistance and anger--all related to the fear of losing one's independence. "After safely driving for 50, 60 years, how could I possibly survive without driving?" they understandably ask.

However, aging isn't necessarily related to loss of driving skills. Al Bloom, the Zone Coordinator for AARP, who has taught their excellent Driver Safety program for ten years in several New Jersey counties, emphasizes this. "Eighty or ninety year olds might drive safer, better than fifty or sixty year olds. We don't point fingers at the elderly in general but in our module, "When to Retire as a Driver," we explore all the physical issues like vision and reaction times, the horrible driving conditions today, accident rates, insurance costs, etc., so the older drivers can assess themselves and make their own decisions."

Who makes the decision and when, impacts the outcome of this major transition greatly. If a child comes in, grabs the keys and says, "That's it, you're done, no more driving, I'm selling your car" you can predict the emotional trauma involved. On the other hand, if family, friends, doctors and others help an aging person successfully plan for a transition to life without a car, as health, mobility, memory and reaction time deteriorate, that trauma doesn't occur.

One can't plan well for the sudden death of a spouse or a hip fracture but having open dialogues about driving not only makes sense, but has great results.

One client of ELM sat in the passenger seat as his 91 year old mother took him for a drive, after years of anticipating, discussing this possible change. She wavered across lanes and double lines but managed to get home safely. Non-judgmentally, the son asked, "How do you think you did, did you notice any dangerous situations?" His mother admitted to the wavering and her fear of having another accident. She was emotional and concerned. The son suggested she think about it seriously and call him the next day with more thoughts and her decision about driving. Before that he again reviewed all the alternatives, all the resources she would have at hand. The next day she called him and agreed to stop driving for a week, as a test. At the end of the week she said it felt great not to have to drive yet still get to her volunteer job on time every day on the County SCAT van! She arranged with a neighbor for rides to shopping centers, with her children for medical visits and soon sold her car. "I feel good about it because I made the decision, my kids didn't make me stop driving," she said.

The "when" to stop depends on many personal factors--confidence level, accident history, mobility, strength, vision, memory, etc. Should a driver with one eye due to macular degeneration still drive? Their ophthalmologist could advise on that, for example.

Positive planning involves making a list of all the places one typically has to go—doctors, dentists, shopping, movies, library, favorite restaurant, etc. and the frequency. Look at alternatives also, doctor who makes home visits, (YES, they exist!) a closer restaurant, movies delivered to your mailbox, etc. Then discuss alternatives to driving. Independent seniors usually aren't aware of all the community resources that can fill the transportation gap—nor do they like the idea of "public transportation," initially. Present the positives: safer, cheaper (no car insurance, maintenance, gas costs), convenient, meet new friends, etc.

Most counties offer excellent transportation services for seniors. Many towns also have senior centers that offer transportation. Your county Office On Aging can identify all transportation options.

Two excellent pamphlets to help you start the dialogue issued by The Hartford Financial Services Group and MIT AgeLab are: Family Conversations with Older Drivers and Family Conversations about Alzheimer's disease, Dementia and Driving. Order from: The Hartford (We Need to Talk), 200 Executive Blvd. Southington, CT 06489 or online at www.thehartford.com/talkwitholderdrivers/brochure and www.thehartford.com/alzheimers/brochure.

Start the dialogue early, before a bad accident, and emphasize the positive advantages of NOT having to drive. Creatively look at all resources, all alternatives and try to allow the senior to make the decision, with solid information and support. Remind them they will still get out for that large hot fudge sundae!

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