SENIORS NETWORK: Staying safe on the road

A Seniors Health Network professional answers questions about seniors and driving at night

  • Oct. 20, 2016 11:00 a.m.

The Seniors Health Network each month poses a question to health-care professionals. This month, the following hypothetical question was posed to Heather Martin, owner and operations manager of Comfort Keepers:

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 own ability to drive to the store, church, senior centre, or library – or to simply meet up with friends for coffee. The experience can be traumatic.

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

Focus on physical and mental health and abilities, not age.

Fact is, people age differently.

Several factors place seniors at much greater risk for road accidents and affect seniors’ driving ability:

•Vision problems

Cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy can hamper driving ability.

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 disease can become disoriented anywhere, and a severe diabetic may fall into a coma. Rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, sleep apnea and heart disease can impair seniors’ driving ability and skills.

• Medications

Older people often take more medications. This can result in risky, unpredictable and dangerous side effects and drug interactions that cause drowsiness and/or a slowing of reaction time.

Your doctors can discuss side effects, and a pharmacist may be able to do a quick computer-based analysis.

According to the National Institute on Aging, there are several critical indications that a senior may be losing the ability to drive.

These include:

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

• struggling to drive at higher speeds, or erratic driving such as abrupt lane changes, braking or acceleration or hitting curbs;

• getting lost frequently, even on familiar roads, and having trouble reading street signs;

• acting startled, claiming that others appear out of nowhere;

• at-fault accidents, more frequent near-crashes, dents and scrapes; traffic tickets or “warnings” by authorities;

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

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 ICBC.

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,”

• help the senior gain comfort in asking for assistance.

As well, research other available transportation.

Call the Seniors Services Society or Sources Community Resource Centre for ideas and talk to your family members about being volunteer drivers.

Also, if you are from B.C. and qualify for additional assistance from B.C.’s Ministry of Social Development & Social Innovation, you may be eligible for a discounted bus pass.

HandyDART is a door-to-door shared ride service for people with disabilities who are unable to use public transit without assistance.

Finally, stress your concern for safety. You may find a positive reaction when talking honestly about your care and concern for safety.

The South Surrey White Rock Seniors Health Network is a coalition of seniors service providers working under the auspices of the Mayor of White Rock’s office. For information on community resources, visit sswr.fetchbc.ca. If you have a question for publication, email seniorshealthnetworksswr @gmail.com