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My Car and I, over 65 …

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Posted on November 14th, 2019 by Bettina Carlson, under Caregiving, Sandwich Generation, Take Charge, Tips & Resources

…years that is, not miles!

It is a frequently heard concern that we all face with our senior family members, or maybe we are the seniors in question: Are our seniors safe drivers? 

The Car Generation

Something very important to be aware of: Today’s seniors are the first generation to have grown up with and owned their cars. (You can read more about that here. It’s quite interesting. https://photos.state.gov/libraries/cambodia/30486/Publications/everyone_in_america_own_a_car.pdf). Many of them may have driven a car for 60 years! In a way, one could say, they are as attached to their cars as our teenagers are to their cell phones (their generational cultural phenomenon). Have you ever tried to take a cell phone away from a teenager? Have you ever tried to take a car away from an elderly family member?

In their younger years, cars served our seniors as a means of transportion to drive to work and to take family on fun excursions; and maybe a little bit as a means to show themselves and the world – hey, I did it! After all, cars were just becoming popular and available to the masses; and Public Transit was still the common mode of transportation. And overall, driving was a big enhancement to their quality of life!  

Today, seniors need their cars to go grocery shopping, visit family and friends, and get to doctor appointments. It primarily serves as a means to continue to participate in public life and to preserve their independence. Not only is public transportation no longer as readily available to everyone; but also, while some seniors may not be able to walk well any longer, they can still drive. It’s easy to see, how cars continue to be a big contributor to our seniors’ quality of life. Why would they want to give this up? Or why would a senior have to give up driving? 

There seems to be a stereotype that seniors are unsafe drivers, have a higher risk of causing accidents, even fatal accidents. Is this true? Take a look at these numbers:

Facts and Numbers

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration;  and Federal Highway Administration in 2017, regarding drivers in fatal motor vehicle crashes, the following are statistics for our seniors 65 and older (see the complete chart here: https://www.iii.org/article/background-on-older-drivers):

  • 27,330,881 licensed drivers age 65-74; equalling 12.1% of all drivers; have a 15% involvement rate in fatal accidents.
  • 16,284,040 licensed drivers over 75 years; equalling 7.2 % of all drivers; have a 19.2% involvement rate in fatal accidents. 

Compare these to the youngest drivers, 16-24 years of age. After all, they are the other age group, with who we may find ourselves in the car as a passenger, holding on to the door handle with a tight grip. Anyone, who ever has ridden with a new driver knows what I’m talking about! 

  • 12,019,891 licensed drivers age 16-20; equalling 5.3% of all drivers; have a 35.6% involvement rate in fatal accidents.
  • 14,358,274 licensed drivers age 21-24; equalling 6.4% of all drivers; have a 34.9% involvement rate in fatal accidents. 

Surprise! (Or maybe not?) Our seniors are actually safer drivers than we give them credit for! And clearly safer drivers than our young drivers! So, you can release your grip on the door handle, when you drive with your elderly parent or friend. At least with some drivers. 

But “safer” doesn’t mean that there are no risks. Let’s take a closer look at the factors behind the numbers above. If our seniors are safe drivers, why then does this stereotype exist? How is the stereotype wrong? What are at the risk factors for seniors driving? How can a senior driver continue to be a safe driver? Under what circumstances is a senior no longer a safe driver? 

Along with my own observations of family members, senior friends and clients, below I’ll share information from the National Institute on Aging. They issued an excellent and valuable pamphlet on the Older Driver. I recommend reading it, whether you are the senior driver, a concerned family member or friend: https://order.nia.nih.gov/sites/default/files/2019-01/AgePage-Older-Drivers.pdf.

Risk Factors

Driving a car comes with risk factors for each and every driver. Those are as diverse as the drivers and the specific situation they may find themselves in. But some risk factors can be categorized into more common risk factors for specific age groups. What are some of those age specific risk factors with our seniors? 

Vison

Our range of vision, can diminish as we age, thus it gets harder to see people, cars, bikes, and movement outside this range. Night vision may also decrease with age, making it more difficult to see our surroundings clearly. 

Glaucoma and cataracts are adding to vision challenges. And glare from oncoming traffic or streetlights can be an increasing problem. 

Hearing

Our hearing can diminish, making it harder to notice sirens, horns from other cars, or even noises from our own cars, alerting us to a problem. 

Mobility

Our mobility decreases as we age and/or is impaired, eg. due to Arthritis, which makes it more difficult to turn the head to look over our shoulders. Or maybe we have Neuropathy in our feet and hands and cannot feel them at times, like it happened to one of our clients, making using the pedals or holding the stirring wheel rather risky.

Dementia

Considering how common dementia is today, and how it impairs our cognitive abilities, this is a serious concern. Seniors who suffer from dementia may have difficulty assessing the appropriate responses in particular scenarios, like the right of way in intersections; they may not even remember where they are going; and many more concerns. In the early stages of dementia this problem may not be so obvious, but as dementia progresses the risks of driving increase, and driving will eventually no longer be an option.

Medications

Medications can also bear risks that significantly impact a senior’s ability to drive safely. And given the fact, that so many of our seniors take numerous medications (that is a topic by itself, that we will address in a future blog post), this can pose an increased risk factor. 

It is easy to acknowledge that a sleeping pill or a strong pain medication does impair driving and thus one can prepare to be proactive when taking these medications. But what about other common medications prescribed to seniors – such as antidepressants, dementia meds or Parkinson meds? Medications that are geared towards impacting the brain. They can significantly impair safe driving abilities. Or what about when adding a new medication? It may take the body some time to adjust, possibly causing side effects like drowsiness, lightheadedness. 

Safe Driving Tips

Generally, many seniors tend to be aware of their limitations, and engage in safe driving practices to compensate for the above mentioned risk factors by:

  • avoiding to drive at night.
  • avoiding rush hour traffic.
  • avoiding risky passing maneuvers.
  • avoiding driving in bad road conditions and weather. 
  • avoiding to drive long distances. 
  • avoiding to speed.
  • avoiding to engage in distractive activities, such as using their cell phones while driving.
  • being more likely to wear seatbelts at all times.

Additionally, it is very helpful to increase safety by:

  • taking a driving refresher course to update driving skills.
  • having someone test the senior’s driving skills and suggest ways to improve it.

Still, some seniors don’t adjust their driving. They may be in denial or sometimes because of a cognitive impairment like dementia, which interferes with making sound self-assessments. 

Generally, if family members or friends of senior drivers are concerned in the slightest bit about their senior driver, they should observe and pay extra attention to their senior’s driving skills. Getting in the passenger seat with your driver is one easy way; checking the mail for traffic tickets, or hearing neighbors mentioning odd driving behavior are other check points. If there seems to be a problem, do not ignore it and discuss it with your senior driver. Maybe it is a problem, that can be corrected and thus improve safety. Maybe it is a warning sign to retire from driving.

It is also possible that seniors may be referred for a safe driver evaluation by their doctors, police or maybe even a staff member at a licensing agency. 

Take Charge

When you have “The Talk” with your senior about driving, and potentially retiring from driving, try putting yourself in their shoes and be mindful to:

  • recognize how important their driver’s license is to their identity and their independence!! This is very important to understand! Listen to their concerns, frustrations or even anger, and acknowledge it! “I hear you, this situation is very upsetting to you”, “Let us work together to find a solution”, and be prepared to offer solutions, e.g. offer your driving services, offer a car service like Uber, etc.   
  • discuss their driving skills, not their age.
  • avoid confrontations. Use “I” messages instead of pointing fingers with the use of “you”. Don’t say: “You are no longer a safe driver”, rather say: “I am concerned about your safety when you drive”.
  • don’t expect to be successful after your first “talk”. It can take many attempts. If all fails, invite your senior’s doctor into the discussion. They may carry more authority than you. 

Since we all age differently, there is not that one specific age at which everyone should retire from driving. And this actually gives us the chance to  take care of our health, and by doing so, it may even make us a safer driver for longer. So be proactive and take action:

  • Eye doctor: Make sure you have regular eye exams, every 1-2 years if you have no other eye concerns and no prescription glasses or contacts; if you do, go as often as your doctor recommends.
  • Ear doctor: Make sure you have regular hearing tests, every 3 years after age 50. 
  • Pharmacist and/or doctor: Educate yourself about all your medications, read inserts and labels. Do they have warnings about driving? Discuss your medications with either your pharmacist or your prescribing doctor, to learn if they impact your ability to drive safely and ask for alternatives if available and possible. Another easy to use tool for getting an idea on how your or your senior driver’s medications may affect driving is  AAA’s online tool Roadwise RXhttp://www.roadwiserx.com/interactionsAndWarnings.aspx

And one more time – whether you are a concerned family member or the driver themself, I highly suggest reading the National Institute on Aging’s brochure Older Drivers. It offers valuable information, and referrals to additional resources for more information about all things driving.  

Sources and Resources

Car-sharing Offers Convenience, Saves Money and Helps the Environment. https://photos.state.gov/libraries/cambodia/30486/Publications/everyone_in_america_own_a_car.pdf

Older drivers. https://www.iihs.org/topics/older-drivers

Background on: Older Drivers. https://www.iii.org/article/background-on-older-drivers

Age Page. Older Drivers. https://order.nia.nih.gov/sites/default/files/2019-01/AgePage-Older-Drivers.pdf

Research helps older drivers stay safe and independent. https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/research-helps-older-drivers-stay-safe-and-independent

Roadwise RX. http://www.roadwiserx.com/interactionsAndWarnings.aspx

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