Driving is synonymous with independence for many Americans. Is it any wonder then that as we get older we’re reluctant to give it up?
After retirement, driving allows us to maintain friendships, visit family, do our grocery shopping, and participate in community activities.
Which is why many of us are slow to admit it when cognitive, vision, hearing, or mobility issues begin to affect our safety as drivers.
Factors that can affect driving abilities as we get older
To be clear, being old doesn’t make you a bad driver. Some people continue to drive safely well into their nineties. That’s why it’s not a good idea to judge a person’s fitness to drive based solely on their age.
That said, as we get older we’re more likely to experience issues that affect our driving abilities. Here are some as described by the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
- Stiff joints and muscles. These changes can make it harder to turn your head to look back, turn the steering wheel quickly, or brake safely.
- Trouble seeing. It might be harder to see people, things, and movement outside your direct line of sight. It may take longer to read street or traffic signs or even recognize familiar places. At night, you may have trouble seeing things clearly. Glare from oncoming headlights or streetlights can be a problem. Depending on the time of the day, the sun might be blinding.
- Trouble hearing. This can make it harder to notice horns, sirens, or even noises coming from your own car.
- Slower reaction time and reflexes. You might find that you have a shorter attention span, making it harder to do two things at once. Stiff joints or weak muscles also can make it harder to move quickly. Loss of feeling or tingling in your fingers and feet can make it difficult to steer or use the foot pedals.
- Medications. Side effects may make you drowsy, lightheaded, or less alert than usual.
In many cases these risks can be managed. The NIA suggests some strategies. However, if these issues are significant enough, giving up driving may be the wisest course of action.
Dementia and driving
The NIA points out that “in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia, some people are able to keep driving. But, as memory and decision-making skills get worse, they need to stop.” The trouble is that people with dementia often do not know they are having driving problems. That means family and friends need to monitor the person’s driving ability and take action as soon as they observe a potential problem.
Talking to someone about giving up driving
So, what should you do if you know someone – perhaps an aging parent – who you think may no longer be safe to drive?
Rather than assuming you’re correct and insist on them giving up driving, consider whether there’s some safe middle ground. After all, taking away their license – or taking similar measures – may devastate them.
Try identifying issues of concern and seeing if there’s a way they can be addressed. For instance, if night vision is a problem, would avoiding driving at night be an adequate solution?
Of course, it’s possible you may not be able to find a middle ground. Perhaps they’ve had numerous close calls or accidents. They may deny there’s a problem and insist on driving just as they always have. If that’s the case, it’s probably time to involve a health care professional like a family physician, geriatrician, or a driving clinic.
How a move to a senior living community can help
Giving up driving can be a significant problem for seniors living on their own. They can easily feel cut off. They may not be able to run their own errands. They may feel like repeatedly asking friends, neighbors or family for a lift is an imposition.
However, if they were to move to a senior living community, giving up driving wouldn’t be as much of a problem. They’d be able to take advantage of the community’s transportation services for social outings. They wouldn’t need to go grocery shopping if they were part of the community’s meal plan. And they wouldn’t have to travel as much to attend activities because the community would have its own on-site recreational programs.
Interested in exploring moving to senior living? For more on this topic, check out our handy guide, “Should You Stay or Should You Go? How to Decide Between Home and Senior Living.”