End of the road: How old is too old to drive?

Seniors at a retirement community
Peggy Anderson, 78, and husband Ken, 83, at Clermont Park Retirement Community. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post

Among Wave Dreher’s tasks as communications director for AAA Colorado is discussing with aging drivers about when it’s time to hand over the car keys. Imagine her consternation when her father, about to enter end-of-life care, argued that he wanted to drive himself to the hospice.

“It’s something that affects every family, even ours,” Dreher said.

“None of us want to give up that freedom.”

Especially not in the western United States, where most cities and towns are designed with drivers in mind.

Few people live within walking distance of a supermarket, their health-care provider, house of worship, movie theater, gym, bowling alley or other entertainment venue.

Letting go of the keys means finding other forms of transportation. Unless you can afford a personal chauffeur, that means figuring out how to fit your errands and excursions into someone else’s schedule. Some senior living communities offer van and shuttle service to residents. Members of Washington Park’s A Little Help residential association, or southeast Denver’s Columbine Community Village pay an annual fee for driving assistance.

On the bright side, aging drivers who give up the keys may get a financial windfall from what they no longer spend on gas and automobile insurance.

But many of us bite our tongues when we notice our aging spouses or parents have a mishap, or a near-miss, beyond the wheel.

Despite state laws that put restrictions on aging drivers, most Americans are reluctant to give up the car keys. Many aging Americans argue that they’re safer drivers than teenagers, though a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey found that drivers age 80 and over are as likely to be in accidents as 16- to 17-year-olds.

“Older drivers really pose the biggest risk to themselves,” said Marian Betz, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado school of medicine.

“You’re more at risk of being hit by a younger driver than an older driver. But older drivers have a decreased ability to heal from injuries.”

Older drivers also are more likely to rely on multiple prescription medications that may interfere with their concentration behind the wheel, Dreher said.

“Every driver needs to know how every drug they take impacts their driving,” she said.

“It’s not just the kids out there with their marijuana. It’s some of us way over age 40 who have bad habits, including driving while we’re texting. One thing AAA believes is that it’s not your age that determines when you should stop driving, but your physical ability. There are 50-year-olds who shouldn’t be driving, and 80-year-olds who are still competent. It can be as simple as your health and physical ability.”

Still, many Americans continue to drive even after being diagnosed with a chronic illness or condition that affects their ability to drive.

Diabetes, for example, can damage the nerves in feet, hands and eyes, slowing reaction time and limiting vision. Ken Anderson, 83, reluctantly gave up his keys last year, about 12 years after he was diagnosed with diabetes.

“I couldn’t feel the gas pedal with my feet anymore,” he explained.

“The diabetes made my feet numb. I was diagnosed in 1990. Then finally a nurse told me that if I couldn’t feel the pedals, I shouldn’t drive, because if I got in an accident, I’d really be in trouble. Boy, I miss it.”

Giving up the car keys is the flip side of holding your newly minted driver’s license for the first time. It is an unhappier rite of passage.

Still, as American life spans increase, people should realize that they’ll probably spend 10 years or so relying on other forms of transportation. Denver and other municipal governments are planning for that, with lists of alternative transportation online at denver.gov, SeniorsResourceGuide.com, and Northern Colorado’s Senior Alternatives In Transportation.

“We did a study that found that older drivers are open to the idea of preventive conversations, starting at age 65,” Betz said.

“It’s not just about taking the keys. It’s about making plans. We should be planning for driving retirement, just as we plan for retirement living. Having the discussion earlier, when you’re still driving, makes it less harsh when the time does come to give up the keys. It’s not realistic to tell someone to stop driving, and expect him to stop the next day.”

Peggy Anderson, 78, still drives, but she has modified her excursions behind the wheel, partly because she is concerned that her reaction time may be slowing, and partly because she dislikes the pressure she senses from impatient drivers.

“I drive the back roads, I won’t go on the highway, and I won’t go to downtown Denver,” she said.

Part of the reason she and her husband, diabetic Ken Anderson, sold their home last summer and moved to Clermont Park, a senior residential community, is because transportation is offered to non-drivers. That was a selling point for their neighbor, Warren Benjamin, 86, who is steeling himself to give up his car this summer.

“I have macular degeneration, and right now, it’s hard to see road signs,” he said.

“So I’m going to give it up. My granddaughter is excited. She gets my car.”

By Claire Martin, The Denver Post


Time to give up the car keys?

How to figure out when and why you should stop driving.

How to talk about giving up the car keys

Have the discussion before signs appear that a driver is having problems. Designate a trusted relative or friend to be brutally honest when they notice that your driving skills are faltering.

Starting the conversation about when to stop driving can be difficult. Here’s some help:”Have the conversation before there’s an emergency, not after a crash or a near-miss,” says Wave Dreher of Colorado AAA.”At a family dinner, bring up the statistic that we’re probably going to live longer than we’re able to drive. Ask, ‘Do you have any thoughts about how you’re going to handle that?’ Face the facts. The chances are that we’re going to have 10 years of so of life when we shouldn’t be driving.” Dreher also suggests enlisting an adult child, friend, relative, religious leader or another trusted colleague to act as your driving monitor.”You might say to that person, ‘I’m doing pretty well on driving right now, but I want you to know that if you think I’m starting to have problems, it’s OK to talk to me about that,” Dreher said.”A lot of times, adult children and friends are scared to bring up the topic.”

Are you still good to drive?

Some questions to ask yourself, or your aging spouse or parent, to assess current driving ability.

In the past 24 months, have you had two or more accidents or close calls — narrowly missing another car, a pedestrian or a cyclist — while driving?

Do you feel uncomfortable or confused driving on congested streets or highways?

In the past 24 months, have you confused the gas and brake pedals, or had difficulty moving your foot from the accelerator to the brake?

In the past 24 months, have you missed (or ignored) stop signs and other traffic signals, especially designated left-turn signals and lanes?

Do other drivers frequently honk at you?

Do most drivers pass you?

Have you ever gotten lost or disoriented even on a familiar route?

Do you neglect to signal when you turn, or forget to reset the turn signal after you’ve turned?

Has your car (or your mail box or garage walls) accumulated new nicks, scratches and dents during the last 24 months?

Do you forget to check the mirror and blind spots when you’re changing lanes and merging into traffic?

Do you avoid driving at night or in bad weather because it’s hard to see clearly?

Do you get drowsy when you drive?

Are you slower to react to changes when you’re driving?

Do you weave between lanes, or straddle the line between lanes, or rely on that line as a guide to drive straight?

Do you feel uncomfortable when you’re driving without a co-pilot?

Are you currently taking more than five prescription medications?

If the answer is “yes” to two or more of those questions, then it may be time to shift to the passenger seat.

Sources: SeniorDrivingAAA.com, AARP Driver Safety and other publications


See the article on the Denver Post website here.

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