Categorized | Family Care, Pushback

Older Drivers Have A Difficult Time Giving Up The Keys

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The conventional wisdom is that older drivers are dangerous drivers. That canard has been shown to be untrue.

By Al Norman

The conventional wisdom is that older drivers are dangerous drivers. That canard has been shown to be untrue — but the issue of when older people should stop driving is one of the most contentious decision points in an older person’s life.

I recall trying to hide the keys from my aunt, who was in her mid-80s and had suffered a stroke that rendered one arm useless. She had marginal vision and impaired reaction times.

Every day she had to back out of her driveway onto a busy state road. It was literally the “accident waiting to happen.” The police in her small town had stopped her several times for weaving out of her lane. We got her doctor to examine her, and he recommended she stop driving. Which she did — but it was a major setback for her, and the rest of the family felt guilt pangs for months. We did it to protect our love one from being hurt — and equally important — from hurting someone else.

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Safety Research, “Since the mid-1990s, fatal crashes per licensed driver trended downward, with greater declines for drivers ages 70 and older than for middle-aged drivers (43 percent vs. 21 percent). Fatal crash rates per 100,000 licensed drivers and police-reported crash rates per mile traveled for drivers ages 70–79 are now less than those for drivers ages 35–54.”

The study did find that among older drivers, fatal crash rates per mile traveled and risk of dying in a crash remain higher — but that’s because elders drive fewer miles. Over the past decade, “fatal crash rates increased substantially for middle-aged drivers but decreased or remained stable among older driver age groups.”

Fatal crashes for people age 70 and older are below their peak level reached in 1997, despite the fact there are more elders on the road and more miles being driven. Older drivers may be in better health due to improved healthcare oversight, and the cars we drive have better safety features that have increased “crash survivability.” The study authors concluded: “Older adults should feel confident that their independent mobility needs pose less risk than previously expected.”

patient-centered, Social Security, ageist, nursing, COVID, Trump, vaccineBut that upbeat assessment does not change the fact that my aunt was depressed over the sudden loss of independence. It was an “emotional crash” for her. She was unable to do her shopping and daily errands on her own. It also became clear that our public transit system — which is often a rigid “fixed route” network with woefully inadequate “demand-response” rides — is not designed to help people like my aunt. Especially in rural and suburban communities.

In my state of Massachusetts, for example, people on state aid have to give demand-response transit providers a three-day advance notice of a ride request, based on a written authorization submitted by their primary care provider to Medicaid, for every specific address of every medical provider they expect to visit during the year. Its more complicated than planning a trip to South Africa. If you wake up with a swollen wrist, the system encourages you to call for ambulance for an ER visit, or to find a friend to take you to a same-day doctor’s appointment.

Stereotypes about older drivers die hard. But a recent article by Jane Brody of the New York Times said that “it may be time for everyone to breathe a little easier and maybe worry instead about young drivers who, as a whole, are more likely than us old-timers to speed and multitask.”

Brody points out that “Compared to young drivers, [older drivers] are less likely to drink and drive, speed, ignore road signs, drive in bad weather and drive at night.”

That’s reassuring, but when you are the subject of the discussion, it’s easy to understand why an elder would become defensive and feel cornered when loved ones apply pressure for them to “give up the keys.”

Like other discussions about aging, it’s better to act before an elder has lost a capacity that everyone else notices. I got my aunt’s doctor into the discussion, but probably should have done it earlier. The longer you wait, the harder it is to plan for the future.

Advanced planning for older drivers will help handle some of the issues, and prevent an “emotional crash” when the moment comes to hang up the keys.

I should have discussed with my aunt what plans she would make if she ever couldn’t drive, asking her: “Who could you get to shop for you? How would you get to the hair dresser?” These questions would have helped the whole family do some basic research about what community services were available, and helped to ease in a gradual transition.

Just having such a conversion could be anxiety-producing, but could also be a helpful reminder that the day was coming when independent driving would no longer possible.

And that day will come for all of us.

Al Norman worked in the elderly home care field in Massachusetts for 38 years. He has been writing opinion columns for the Fifty Plus Life since 2014, and for years in the Fifty Plus Advocate newspaper.


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