While most of us are too busy to think about aging, some of our reflexes are not! As you pass 40 or 50, have you found physical changes that go beyond the gray hair and wrinkles? I am talking about driving a car, or even distance bicycle riding. These things that were once almost second nature do tend to get harder and our reactions to them not quite as fast as they should be.
Driving is the hardest one to give up and the loss of independence it brings can seem disastrous. What should we do when we know we should give up driving due to slower response time or failing vision? Many of us have been in this situation when dealing with aging parents and other family members. How do we know when our parents, or indeed when we ourselves, need to hand over the keys?
My in-laws lived in a retirement community for many years. They cautioned me to be very careful when driving or walking to and from the supermarket in the nearby mall. “The drivers there are an accident waiting to happen,” my mother-in-law warned. Many of her neighbors had already been in accidents yet they continued to drive.
No state has an age limit on driving. A driver who is elderly may be tested and restricted from highways or at night, but if he or she passes the eye and driving tests, the license will be renewed. Many states allow renewal by computer so drivers can keep a current license for years, and only Washington DC requires a reaction test for people over 70.
It may be difficult for adult children to deliver the stop driving message to parents, especially if you have been brought up not to question their decisions. But don’t necessarily expect your doctor to do this for you. He or she has no more power in this area than you do, except for the ‘authority’ they can use in their suggestions.
Of course, driving is important for many elders; it is their means of transportation and mobility, and may be the only way to get to a store or continue their social interactions. We are all reluctant to give up the opportunity to be in charge of our own travel. And since the changes that come with aging are so variable, it is important to identify those who have diminished capabilities and not assume the entire older population is impaired.
What are signs to look for if we think family members should stop driving? There are many age-related physiological changes that occur. First, visual changes include a decrease in field of vision, adapting to light and dark, reduced depth perception and overall vision. Some of these changes are the result of glaucoma, cataracts or diabetes or stroke. Often older people have trouble turning their head to look behind them when parking or pulling out of a space. Also, many older people are taking medications that may interfere with attention or problem solving skills so necessary for safe driving.
Many cities have established transportation services for the elderly, but suburban and rural areas have fewer options or accessible transit systems. Thus seniors in those communities may be harder to convince, even if they know you are right.
This message is for all of us who are aging, but I have tried to soften the message by suggesting you think about our parents or other elders first!!! So do ask yourself the same questions: Am I still a safe driver? Should I consider asking someone else to drive when I go out at night? Driving while aging is a serious proposition. Until those driver-less cars become a reality, please think about your reactions before you get into the car.