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Driving Safely as We Age

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Driving is considered a right of passage or freedom for most young people in there late teens. As a person ages, health problems or substance abuse can take its toll.  This is when driving can become more dangerous for the individual and others on the road.  When talking about substance abuse, this doesn’t necessarily mean alcohol or illegal stuff. This could be over the counter or prescription meds. Many factors can affect older adults and their inability to drive a motor vehicle. Some of these factors are health-related changes, while others are specific medical conditions or injuries that may occurred over time. These factors can prevent an older adult to react fast if, and when something happens while driving. Below is a list of common factors or signs of when it may be time to stop driving.

What can change a senior’s ability to drive?

There are a variety of signs and factors that may determine when an older adult should hand over the car keys. Some are obvious to the senior, while others may need to be pointed out by a loved one or caregiver. Many adults, including seniors can be stubborn and find it hard to give up this freedom. So, here are some common health conditions or medication side effects that could influence your ability to drive. 

Stiff joints and muscles

There’s no doubt that as we age, our joints start to weaken and you may find it harder to move. For some it may only be a minor issue. Yet for seniors, this could affect how they get around town, including driving. Conditions such as arthritis may make driving even worse; seniors could have trouble turning the steering wheel or brake safety. If you find yourself with joint pain, talking to your primary care physician may be necessary to get the appropriate care. Yor doctor may suggest getting hand controls for gas and brake pedals if you are experiencing arthritis in the legs. 

Medications

With so many types of medications out there for all kinds of conditions, seniors need to be aware of the side effects that each have. Some medicatins can cause seniors to feel lghtheaded, drowsy, or not as alert than you’re used to. As a result, getting behind the wheel may not be a safe thing to do. Certain medications could make your reaction time or reflexes not as sharp, giving an older person a higher risk of serious injuries, accidents, or even death. This is why many drugs add a warning on their label about driving under the influence of medications. Until you know how a new drug affects you, people should avoid driving. 

Hearing Issues

Hearing issues can also complicate things for seniors as they age. In fact, hearing loss is often common among those over 55 years of age. Risk of hearing loss can develop if seniors are expose to loud sounds from their younger years. Many seniors have trouble hearing sounds without wearing hearing aids or other forms of help, especially with aging. Simple things like car horns or sirens may be difficult to hear for older adults. This could become a huge concern while you are driving. Especially if you need to pull over in time or to get out of the way of a fast moving vehicle or an ambulance on its way to an accident. Even sounds from your own car are necessary to hear when driving. To make sure your hearing is working well, having a hearing test at least once every three years is recommended, especially if you are over 50. For seniors having trouble hearing, talk with your primary care physician to discuss what is the best treatment plan for you. 

Vision Concerns

Another complication to getting older is developing vision problems. Seniors may find it difficult to see as clearly as they did as a younger adult. You tend to not recognize street signs as well; including watching people crossing the street. Even traffic signals may be harder to see or seem blurry. If this starts to happen, speak to your doctor right away. For some, you may just need a new prescription on your glasses or contacts. Seniors are advised to have a vision test every one to two years. In fact, in some states, seniors over 65 are required to renew their license to drive annually; some may also have to undergo a driving test. This is to assure that the older adult still has the ability to continue to drive. Not getting the right vision treatment can lead to more serious conditions. Some eye conditions include glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration, which commonly affect seniors over 60. 

Medical conditions that affect Seniors from driving

Seniors driving while diagnosed with any major conditions or illnesses need also to be careful on the roads. An example is Parkinson’s disease. Although this disease does affect those over 60 more, there have been studies that prove young people are affected by Parkinsons as well. Michael J. Fox is an example. Parkinson’s disease is a condtion that consists of uncontrollable movements of the arms or legs, including loss of coordination or balance issues, which could be very dangerous if you are still driving. 

Other conditions that can affect a person’s inability to drive is if they have experienced a stroke. A stroke is a neurological condition that occurs when there is not enough blood being delivered to the brain. The supply of blood could be blocked or reduced, preventing brain tissue from receiving the right amount of oxygen or nutrients, which then causes the stroke. This could be a major catastrophe if a stroke, or similar conditions occur while driving. 

Driving safety tips for older adults

Most people are aware of simple safety concerns when driving a car. For example, if you have vision problems, it is best to stay off the road, especially after dark. This is true at any age, but for seniors, it could be more serious. Even driving in rainy weather is not always safe for older adults or when highways are busy and crowded. Here are some basic tips for older adults to consider when making safe choices when it comes to driving:

  • Avoid driving during certain times of the day: As mentioned earlier, seniors should stop driving at dusk, especially if they are experiencing vision issues. Getting off the road between sunset to sunrise is a good idea. Even times when the sun is up is not always safe for seniors, such as when your line of sight is blocked, causing a glare in your rearview mirror. 
  • Plan your timing and route: Seniors should also avoid heavy traffic areas and stay off roads during rush hour times. Choosing a route that can get you from “A to B” easy, can be helpful, especially on a fast moving highway. Seniors should also consider roads with fewer turns. When on the highway, seniors should always stay in the right lane, so they can easily get off when they need to.
  • Keep up with car maintenance: Seniors should drive an automatic transmission, whenever possible. Other recommendations for seniors is having power steering, power brakes, and larger mirrors. Most newer cars now have backup cameras, which is a great benefit for those who may have perception issues. The camera will help seniors with parking and backing up better, and help them avoid accidents. Seniors should also install window defrosters, if the car doesn’t already have it. This can help clearing up the windshield faster on cold and wet days. 
  • Stay physically and mentally active: Having good physical and mental health will improve your driving skills and abilities while on the open road. Older adults need to be aware of their surroundings as well, so being alert is a must. Seniors should only drive when they are energized and feel refreshed. If you do feel tired or lightheaded, you should avoid driving a car. Pull over to the nearest gas station and take a break if you have been driving for a long time. 
  • When in doubt, don’t go out: Bad weather may put a damper on your daily plans, but it can also be a wise choice for seniors. Most people should avoid driving when the weather turns bad. This includes high winds, rain, ice, snow, or even sleet; any one of these can make it hard to drive in, especially seniors. Wait till everything clears up, or better yet, use alternative transportation, such buses, taxis, or rideshare services. 

Warning signs of unsafe driving

For caregivers and loved ones of an elderly parent, it can be difficult to approach the idea of stopping driving. In fact the NHTSA has advised those close to seniors to notice some warning signs or indicators that an older adult need to avoid getting behind the wheel. Here is a small list of these signs to watch out for. 

  • Drifting into other lanes.
  • Straddling lanes.
  • Making sudden lane changes.
  • Ignoring or missing stop signs and traffic signals.
  • Increased confusion while driving in traffic.
  • Braking or stopping abruptly without cause.
  • Accelerating suddenly without reason.
  • Coasting to a near stop amid moving traffic.
  • Pressing simultaneously on the brake and accelerator pedals while driving.
  • Difficulty seeing pedestrians, objects and other vehicles.
  • Increasing levels of anxiety while driving.
  • Driving significantly slower than the posted speed limit or general speed of other vehicles.
  • Backing up after missing an exit or turn.
  • Difficulty reacting quickly and/or processing multiple stimuli.
  • Problems with back/neck flexibility and turning to see traffic/hazards around the car.
  • Getting lost or disoriented easily, even in familiar places.
  • Anxiety issues while driving at night
  • Failing to use turn signals or keeping signals on without changing lanes.
  • Increased “close calls” and “near misses.”
  • Receipt of two or more traffic citations or warnings in the past two years.
  • Dents and scrapes on their car or on surrounding objects where they drive and park at home, such as fences, mailboxes, garage doors and curbs.
  • Increases in car insurance premiums because of driving issues

How to get around without driving

Many seniors that are told to stop driving may have a fear of getting around town. However, there are many ways to deal with this concern. For example, some towns offer a rideshare bus or van, which picks up individuals that need to go to specific places for a small fee.  If you are a senior that is concerned with pricey ridesharing options, some may offer discounts to seniors over 50. Many will drop off and/or pick up people at the grocery store, bank, or a doctor’s office. Some larger communities may also hav taxis or lyft services available. Religious or civic groups may also provide transportation to seniors. Some of these riding services will offer discounted prices for people over 60. For those familiar with mobile apps, there are services that provide deliveries for meals, groceries, and prescriptio medications. Some are free, while others may require a low-cost subscription fee. Seniors can also check out their local Area Agency on Aging for more transportation services. Seniors can call 800-677-1116, or contact the Eldercare Locator online for more information. 

Getting old is almost like being born in reverse. Most are born into the world with no hair and no teeth; and for some, leave this world the same way.  That being said, there are many reasons why driving as an elderly adult is not always the best thing to do. Seniors who are not alert while driving can end up in a bad situation. Whether it is car crashes, near misses, or just a dent on the side of the family car, if you are not careful, it could become a serious health concern to the people you care about. Seniors that do drive should routinely get health checkups from their doctor about driving. Certain health issues can affect an older adult’s driving ability. Talk to your doctor whenever you feel changes in behavior, weather physically or mentally, are happening to your loved ones. 

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