When do seniors turn in the keys?

Giving up driving is difficult but it also might be necessary, for safety's sake

Life after 50

May 19, 2002|By Jane E. Allen | Jane E. Allen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Of all the insults of growing older, losing one's driving privileges can be one of the most difficult to bear. A new driver's license is a symbolic rite of passage from youth into adulthood, but giving up the car keys as physical and mental faculties diminish is a passage of another sort.

"Driving is the ultimate symbol of independence and self-reliance," said Gloria E. Gesas, a clinical social worker with Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. Older adults often feel that their life is essentially over without a car, she said. And they may stubbornly resist relying on their children or others for transportation.

For families of an elderly driver, the issue is emotionally charged, one that can drive a wedge between husband and wife, parent and child. Family members, often the first to observe an older adult's diminished driving abilities, don't want to feel responsible for curtailing a loved one's independence - the ability to drive to the grocery store, to religious services or to pick up a grandchild after school.

Although there is little debate about when people are ready to start driving - age 16 in most states - there is no consensus or standard age for relinquishing the privilege.

"One thing that just keeps coming through loud and clear is how different seniors are from each other," said Arline Dillman, traffic safety manager for the Automobile Club of Southern California. "I know some people in their 90s who are still marvelous drivers, and some in their 50s and 60s - or for that matter in their 30s and 40s - who ought not to be driving."

One thing's certain: More older drivers will be on the road as the nation's population ages. In 1990, older drivers accounted for 6.7 percent of all travel on U.S. roads, but that figure will increase nearly threefold by 2030, when they'll account for about 19 percent, according to federal estimates.

Often, changes in someone's physical or mental health condition will prompt discussion about whether an older driver is still fit to be behind the wheel.

Glaucoma, cataracts or macular degeneration may impair the ability to read signs. Arthritis, for example, may make it impossible to turn the head to drive in reverse. Certain prescription drugs, such as blood-pressure medications, can slow reaction time. Although dementia alone doesn't preclude driving, those people with moderate to severe dementia lack insight into their behavior and may make poor judgments.

Although relatives are in a position to make valuable observations about an older driver, they often resist confronting the issue because they fear the consequences. They may worry that a spouse or parent will stop talking to them or become deeply depressed if they broach the subject. Another factor is the guilt and resentment of realizing they may have to become the primary driver.

Sometimes an accident - or series of accidents - or other troubling events, such as a driver getting lost, will force a family into action.

A professional assessment is often the best way to determine someone's driving fitness. The assessments are usually covered by health insurance if related to injury or stroke. In some cases, it may pay for the driver to brush up skills with on-road training or a course sponsored by such organizations as the American Association of Retired People.

When a decision is being made to have someone stop driving, family members should try to reach consensus, Gesas said. They also need to decide how best to break the news to the older driver. They may try loving appeals to the person's sense of safety, saying: "We care about you, and you're not safe anymore."

Another way that children or spouses seek help is through the family doctor. A 1997 study by the New York State Office for the Aging found that more than 70 percent of families struggling with this issue of an elderly driver's competence said getting the doctor involved was helpful.

Esther Joffe, 90, of North Hollywood, Calif., hasn't driven after dark since she turned 85.

Joffe, who underwent successful cataract surgery, travels to yoga classes, doctors' appointments and the supermarket - avoiding the freeway. "You have a feeling of liberation and independence when you have a car," she said. "You go when you want, where you what, and that's important."

Jane E. Allen is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

For more information

Here are some organizations that offer assistance or information about older drivers:

American Association of Retired People offers a 55 Alive driving program. Information: 888-227-7669 or www.aarp.org/55alive.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a brochure, "Driving Safely While Aging Gracefully." For information, call 888-327-4236 or see www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/olddrive.

Signs to watch for

When evaluating the performance of an older driver, bear in mind that the safety of many other people - including passengers, pedestrians and other drivers - is at stake.

Some warning signs that driving skills may be impaired:

Failure to stay in proper lane when making a turn.

Getting lost frequently.

Ignoring traffic signs or signals.

Failing to yield the right-of-way.

Turning left from the wrong lane.

Driving slower than the posted speed limit.

Inattention to other vehicles, pedestrians and bikers.

Not checking blind spots when driving in reverse - sometimes a sign of physical limitations, such as neck problems.

Difficulty parking.

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