This article talks about why the elderly tend to face issues in driving with age and how can these issues be identified and addressed.
For a lot of us, driving is one of the primary facets of our life that helps us in staying independent. This state of independence can be maintained as we age by reducing the risk factors associated with driving and incorporating safe driving practices.
This can help one in being able to continue driving safely long into the elderly years.
What differences come up with age as the elderly continue to drive?
Everyone tends to age differently and is affected by it in their own way. It is therefore not possible to decide on an abrupt cut off in terms of when someone should stop driving.
However, trends tend to state that older adults have a higher frequency of receiving traffic tickets and even getting into accidents as compared to younger drivers. There are multiple factors that are responsible for this increase.
As they age, issues like reduced vision, impaired hearing, slower motor reflexes, and other worsening health issues can become a major concern for the elderly as well as their caretakers.
What are the most common reasons because of which the elderly face issues in driving? How can one address each of them?
The elderly tend to face different forms of issues with age that make the process of driving more of a hassle as compared to being a mode of exerting their independence. We are listing some of these issues along with ways in which these can be addressed.
Stiff joints and muscles
With age, the joints tend to become stiff and the muscles may weaken as well. Ailments like arthritis which are very common among older adults can affect the ability to drive.
Basic requirements like turning their head to look back, turning the steering wheel quickly or even being able to brake safely- all these activities become harder with time.
If the elderly face trouble with their joints and muscle activity, it is advisable to see a doctor in case the pain, stiffness, or arthritis is causing trouble for them in terms of driving.
Driving a vehicle that has features like automatic transmission, power brakes, large mirrors, and power steering can help in the driving activity.
In order to improve their body strength and flexibility, they can try to be physically active and exercise regularly. If they face leg related troubles, they may consider getting hand controls for both the gas and brake pedals.
This could put less strain on their leg muscles and make the driving experience more comfortable for them.
Issues with sight
As one gets older, their eyesight can change. It may become harder for them to see people, things and the smaller movements outside their direct line of sight.
It may take more time for them to read traffic or street signs and sometimes difficult to recognize familiar places. Sometimes, their night vision can be affected making it difficult for them to see things clearly if it is a little dark.
Glare from street lights or oncoming headlights can be a problem during the night time, During the day, even the sun might be blinding for them.
The elderly tend to have issues related to glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration which can cause vision problems. Sometimes, it is the medicines taken for other ailments that may lead to vision issues.
If they suffer from vision issues, regular eye checkups from an ophthalmologist is a good idea. If they are aged 65 or older, they should definitely see an eye doctor every year and get thorough checkups done.
If they wear glasses or contact lenses to see far away while driving, they should ensure that the prescriptions are up-to-date and correct. They should always wear their glasses or lenses when driving.
If they have trouble seeing in the dark, cut back on their night driving and stop altogether if it is a major concern. During the sunrise and sunset, the sun can be directly in their line of vision. They should try to avoid driving at these times.
Trouble with Hearing
With age, the elderly can sometimes face issues related to hearing. This may make it harder for them to notice horns, sirens, or even noises coming from their own cars.
This becomes troublesome especially when these sounds are serving as a warning for them to pull over or get out of the way to avoid any form of accidents.
If they are having trouble with their hearing, it is advised to get it checked at least every 3 years once they are above the age of 50. They should freely discuss the concerns that they have related to hearing with their doctor.
The doctor may help them in finding ways to help. It is also advisable to keep the inside of the car quiet so that sounds or noises are easily noticeable.
Slower reaction time and reflexes
As one gets older, they may not be able to react as quickly as they would have done in the past. Their reflexes tend to get slower and they might have a shorter attention span. This makes it harder for them to move quickly.
Activities like steering the wheel or using the foot pedals for gas and brakes can become a tedious task especially if the elderly are suffering from the loss of feeling or tingling sensations in their feet and fingers.
Diseases like Parkinson’s or limitations arising out of a stroke can also make driving highly unsafe for the elderly.
If the elderly are suffering from slower reflexes, they can start by taking basic precautions while driving. This may include leaving additional space between their vehicle and the one in front of them. They should also start braking earlier than usual whenever they feel the need to stop.
The elderly should also avoid heavy traffic areas or rush-hour driving whenever they can. If they are expected to drive on a fast-moving highway, it is advised to drive in the right-hand lane.
Since the traffic moves a lot more slowly in this lane, it will give them more time to make safer driving decisions preventing any form of mishap.
Side effects of medication
Sometimes the medicines that the elderly take on a regular basis make them feel drowsy, lightheaded or less alert than usual. They should always be checked for any warnings related to driving.
Many medicines have side effects that prohibit the user from driving. The elderly should pay attention to how the drugs they are taking are impacting their driving.
Issues like Dementia
Some people are able to keep driving in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia. But it becomes necessary for them to stop once the memory and decision-making skills get worse.
Those suffering from dementia often have no idea about their driving problems. They need to be monitored by their family and friends so that sufficient action can be taken if any potential problem is observed at any stage.
The caretakers might need assistance from the doctor to let the elderly know that it is no longer safe for them to continue driving.
How should the elderly ensure that they are safe while driving?
Aging does not always equate to loss of driving skills. It just means that the elderly might need to do few additional things in order to drive safely.
This may include modifying their car to make it more comfortable, altering the way they drive, and addressing any physical issues that they believe are interfering with their driving capabilities. Outlined below are few steps that they can undertake for a safer driving experience.
Taking care of physical well being
Ensure that the corrective lenses used by them are current. Get their eye checkup done regularly. If they need hearing aids, ensure that they are always wearing them when driving.
They should do regular strength and flexibility exercises for improving their reflexes and range of motion. This can also help them in easing their pain and stiffness and maintain enough strength to handle the vehicle.
They should ensure that they are sleeping well and should keep a check on the effects of sleep medication on their driving abilities. They should also consult their doctor to check how their ailments and medications can affect their ability to drive well.
Identify the right vehicle and any driving aids needed by them
In case it is required, the elderly or their caretaker can consult an occupational therapist or a certified driving rehabilitation specialist who can prescribe equipment to make steering the car or operating the foot pedal easier.
It is advisable to choose a vehicle that has an automatic transmission, power steering and power brakes so that the elderly do not have to put in a lot of physical effort while driving.
The windows and headlights need to be clean and the car should be in good working condition facilitated by regularly scheduled maintenance.
Drivers on the road these days are easily distracted by smartphones, GPS devices, or audiobooks. The elderly need to take some extra steps just to be safe while driving. They should leave adequate space for the car that is driving in front of them.
They should make sure that they are driving consistently with the traffic flow and allow sufficient braking distance. They should definitely avoid getting distracted while driving. The phone call or text can wait while they drive safely to their destination.
Knowing the limitations
If a driving situation is making the elderly uncomfortable, they should not force themselves to go ahead with it. Most elders start changing the way they drive so that they are comfortable while driving.
If seeing well at night is a concern, it is a good idea to drive only during the daytime. If fast-moving traffic makes them anxious, they can stay away from freeways and highways.
Driving in bad weather (like rain, snow, ice, thunderstorms, etc.) can be tricky and requires additional concentration. It should be avoided as much as possible. They can also plan the route in advance before leaving for their destination. this will make them more confident and less confused while on the drive.
Listen to other’s concern
If the elderly are seeing concern from family and friends about their driving, they should take a hard and honest look at their situation. To get more inputs on the situation, they can have a comprehensive driving evaluation done by an occupational therapist.
They can also take a refresher course if driving after a long time. There is no harm in talking to their doctor about their ability to drive safely depending on the medication or ailments involved in their life.
What are the warning signs of unsafe driving in the elderly?
Signs of unsafe driving can sometimes come up gradually or can be observed right away as well. Individual warning signs may not seem to be major, but together they can pose a bigger risk. Some of the red flags that the elderly or their caretaker may witness include-
- Frequent close calls where the elderly have almost crashed the vehicle or there are dents or scrapes on the car, on fences, curbs, garage doors, etc.
- The frequency of them getting traffic tickets or warnings by traffic or law enforcement officers has increased.
- The elderly are finding it difficult to follow the fundamentals of driving. These situations can include making sudden lane changes or braking/accelerating all of a sudden without any plausible reason.
- Ignoring traffic lights or street signs mentioning they did not see them. They might also drive closer and closer to them in order to see them clearly.
- Not being able to hear honking horns or emergency sirens.
The elderly might have driven vehicles their entire life and maybe taking pride in their safety records while driving. However, as they age, it becomes critical to realize that their driving abilities can change as well. They may feel overwhelmed and upset at the prospect of losing part of their independence, but they should keep their mind open to new possibilities.
It is still possible to maintain an active, vibrant, and rewarding lifestyle without a car. They may also be able to prolong other aspects of their independence.