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Driving: Knowing when to give up keys

It’s a decision that none of us wants to face as we age – the decision to give up driving. An even harder decision is to take the keys away from a loved one who may no longer be safe behind the wheel. But as we age, the senses, reaction time and decision-making skills needed to safely operate a vehicle begin to decline. Some of us may recognize these changes and willingly give up driving, but others may not.

We use our cars to get to and from doctors’ appointments, to get to the store to buy groceries and to visit with friends. The decision to give up driving is the decision to give up a little bit of our freedom, and older individuals may feel isolated and alone when they are no longer able to leave the house whenever they like.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of licensed drivers in the United States who were 65 or over increased 63 percent between 1999 and 2017, to nearly 44 million people. The CDC also reported that nearly 7,700 older Americans were killed in motor vehicle accidents in 2017, and more than 257,000 were treated in hospital emergency rooms for crash-related injuries.

Car crashes kill more older adults than they do middle-aged drivers, mostly because older adults are more susceptible to the injuries received in an accident.

One reason that older drivers find themselves in accidents is that our reaction time slows as we age. It may take an older driver more time to hit the brakes when another car stops suddenly in front of them or to react to a pedestrian walking into the road. Likewise, physical limitations related to age may make it more difficult to react. If a driver isn’t able to turn their head easily due to pain or stiffness, for example, that limits their ability to observe and respond to conditions around them.

An older driver may also have difficulty seeing fine details, such as those on street signs, due to decreased vision, and the ability to rapidly switch our focus between near and far objects becomes harder as we age. Age may also have an effect on our peripheral vision, which is important because about 98 percent of everything seen while driving is first seen in our peripheral vision.

Night driving can become more difficult as we age, since older drivers can lose some clarity of vision when there is less light, or the glare from oncoming headlights may make it harder for their eyes to adjust.

Hearing loss may be another problem for older drivers. Sounds with a higher pitch, such as those made by sirens and train whistles, can become harder to hear far earlier than low pitched sounds. Also, studies have shown that people who have trouble hearing are less attentive to their environment, meaning they may not be paying attention behind the wheel as closely as they should.

For other older adults, declines in cognitive function can lead to dangerous and frightening situations behind the wheel. Judgement and memory can be impaired by Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, which could lead to confusion while driving. This could result in an accident caused when the driver mistakenly hits the gas pedal instead of the brakes, or even something more severe. The driver could take a wrong turn and get lost, or they may forget where they are going altogether. In some cases, an older driver suffering from dementia might forget where they live, or they may think their home is someplace where they used to live years ago.

Many older adults are able to recognize their growing limitations and are no longer comfortable behind the wheel. They make the conscious decision to give up the keys, but for those who are unaware of or unwilling to face their limitations, family members must often step in.

Relatives who are concerned about an older driver should keep in mind how important driving is to their loved one’s sense of independence when approaching the subject. Consulting with others who may have made similar observations about the loved one’s unsafe driving may help convince them to give up the keys. Seeking the advice or recommendation of their doctor may also be necessary if they are unwilling to listen to friends and family.

Family members must work to maintain a sense of trust as they approach the subject of driving with older relatives. Discussing the topic with a confrontational attitude generally leads the older driver to feel as if their being attacked and leads to unwanted results. Above all, family members must be persistent and not give up when their loved one refuses to acknowledge that their driving is no longer safe.

Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines and familiar surroundings. To set up an appointment for a no-obligation in-home consultation, call 330-332-1203.

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