SENIORS’ HEALTH NETWORK: When it comes to driving, it’s about ability, not age

A senior’s age is not reason enough to take away their car keys, says Comfort Keepers’ Heather Martin

The Seniors Health Network each month explores a different health-care topic with local professionals.

This month, Heather Martin of Comfort Keepers answers the question:

Our dad, who is 84, seems to be having problems driving at night, but will not admit it or even talk to us about it. What do we do?

Seniors are usually reluctant to give up driving. Taking the car keys removes their ability to drive to the store, church, senior centre, or library – or to simply meet up with friends for coffee. The experience can be quite traumatic.

Remember: age is just a number. A senior’s age is not reason enough to take away the car keys. There are people in their 90s who drive safely, while others decades younger can be a real danger to themselves and others.

It’s important to focus on physical and mental health and abilities, not age. The fact is, people age differently. Several factors place seniors at much greater risk for road accidents and affect seniors’ driving ability, including:

• Vision problems: Cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy can hamper driving ability. (Cataracts and glaucoma can be surgically corrected.) Poor depth perception, narrowed peripheral vision, poor judgment of speed, poor night vision and increased sensitivity to bright sunlight, headlights and glare can all become problems with age.

• Lack of physical ability: Driving takes dexterity, ability and strength to control a vehicle at all times. Range-of-motion issues, such as inability to look over the shoulder, trouble shifting gears or confusing gas and brake pedals can be a problem. Drowsiness may also occur in older adults, even during the day.

• Diseases and chronic conditions: Those with Alzheimer’s can become disoriented anywhere, and a severe diabetic may fall into a coma. Rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, sleep apnea and heart disease can also impair seniors’ driving ability and skills.

• Medications: Older people often take more medications. This can result in unpredictable and dangerous side effects and drug interactions that cause drowsiness or a slowing of the person’s reaction time.

Warning signs that mean it’s time to act

According to the National Institute on Aging, there are several indications that someone may be losing the judgment or ability to drive. These are:

• poor driving at night, or reduced peripheral vision – even if 20/20 with corrective lenses;

• struggling to drive at higher speeds, or erratic driving such as abrupt lane changes or barely missing other cars or pedestrians;

• getting lost frequently, even on familiar roads, and having trouble navigating directions;

• acting startled, claiming that cars or pedestrians seem to appear out of nowhere;

• at-fault accidents, more frequent near-crashes, dents and scrapes;

• not using turn signals/keeping them on without changing lanes, lane drifting, driving on the wrong side of the road.

Having the conversation

Talking to a loved one about the need to stop driving is one of the most difficult discussions you may ever face, and there may be resistance.

However, it’s better to get advice from someone familiar than by an order from a judge or the DMV. Harriet Vines, author of Age Smart: How to Age Well, Stay Fit and Be Happy, suggests be empathetic, not confrontational; keep the conversation non-accusatory, honest and between “adults,” not “child and parent”; and, help the senior gain comfort in asking for assistance.

Alternative transportation

Research other available transportation. Call the local Area Agency on Aging for ideas, and talk to your family members about being volunteer drivers. Also, help the senior make a schedule. He or she can plan activities and combine trips on days when a caregiver can drive.

If you are from B.C. and qualify for additional assistance from the B.C. Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation, you may be eligible for a discounted annual bus pass. To find out more about the program, call 1-866-866-0800.

HandyDART is a door-to-door shared-ride service for people with physical or cognitive disabilities who are unable to use public transit without assistance. To find out more about HandyDART, call the customer care office at 604-953-3680.

Stress your concern for safety

Involve the senior in the conversation. You may find a positive reaction when talking honestly about your care and concern for their safety. A person 70 or older involved in a crash is more likely to be seriously hurt, require hospitalization or die than a younger person involved in the same crash.

Heather Martin is owner and operations manager of Comfort Keepers.

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