Terry McLaughlin: Dreaded ‘driving’ discussion difficult, but important for older adults
One of the most difficult conversations you are likely to ever have is the dreaded “driving” discussion with your elderly parent or loved one.
The ability to drive helps older adults remain mobile, independent, and active.
None of us wants to take that away from them. But aging does present some uncomfortable, and often unavoidable, realities for drivers. If you have not yet had the need to have that dreaded conversation, you know that it likely lies somewhere in your future.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were more than 40 million licensed drivers over the age of 65 in the United States in 2015 — a 50 percent increase since 1999. As one ages, the risk of being injured or killed in an automobile accident increases. Involvement in fatal crashes, per mile traveled, begins increasing among drivers ages 70 to 74, and is highest among drivers ages 85 and older.
Some of this risk is attributable to a senior’s greater susceptibility to injury or medical complications, but the remainder is from age-related physical or mental conditions that impair their driving ability.
Not all statistics on senior drivers paint a grim picture, however. Older drivers are less likely than other adult drivers to drink and drive. CDC statistics for 2015 reveal only 6 percent of drivers over the age of 75 involved in fatal crashes had a blood alcohol content of .08 (California’s legal limit) or higher, compared to 28 percent of drivers between the ages of 21 and 24.
Senior drivers are also more apt to wear seat belts than younger drivers. The same CDC report indicates that sixty nine percent of passengers aged 75 or older involved in automobile accidents were wearing a seat belt, compared to only thirty eight percent of those aged 21 to 24.
Older drivers also tend to voluntarily limit their driving during bad weather, at night, or on high-speed roads or freeways, in comparison to younger drivers.
What are some other steps that older adults can take to stay safe on the road?
Exercise regularly to maintain strength and flexibility. Decreased flexibility can make it difficult to perform a number of functions necessary for safe driving, such as turning the head to check blind spots, and diminished reflexes slow reaction times.
Review medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, to reduce side effects, and heed any warnings that could affect driving ability.
Have eyes and ears checked regularly. Vision begins to deteriorate as early as age 40, so it is imperative to have regular eye exams and to always wear corrective lenses or glasses if prescribed. Vision problems can make it difficult to judge distances, and issues such as light sensitivity or poor dark vision can impair driving. Hearing problems may also decrease safety, as a senior citizen with poor hearing may miss important sounds such as sirens.
Drive during daylight and in good weather. Plan your route before you set out, one with well-lit streets, and intersections with left turn arrows, if possible. Don’t drive more than eight hours a day, and take a rest stop at least every two hours.
Take advantage of the free two-hour refresher course offered by the California Highway Patrol which is designed to help seniors sharpen their driving skills, refresh their knowledge of the rules of the road, and learn how to adjust to normal age-related physical and mental changes. Information on this free course is available at the Grass Valley CHP office or at http://www.chp.ca.gov.
How can you judge if your loved one is no longer safe behind the wheel?
Near misses and fender benders may be a sign of impairment. Everyone has a close call from time to time, but if a senior citizen has a number of these incidents it is likely that it is time to reassess their driving safety. There is a chance that the senior will not report these incidents, so look for scratches or dents in their vehicle and ask them what happened. According to AAA, two or more collisions or near misses in two years may indicate a problem.
Confusion, forgetfulness, and excessive drowsiness can all be signs that it may be time for the senior to give up their keys. Getting lost frequently, or being regularly late for appointments or engagements due to difficulty finding the way is often a sign that the driver may no longer be safe on the road.
Get in the vehicle with your aging senior regularly and observe that your loved one is properly fastening their seat belt, using turn signals, and backing up safely. If you feel even slightly apprehensive, the odds are that you are approaching a decision point with your senior driver.
The topic of unsafe senior driving is fraught with emotion for everyone involved, but family and loved ones must monitor senior citizens carefully when they suspect the person is no longer safe behind the wheel. Don’t expect help from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Most states do not administer vision or mobility tests for seniors and some states will issue licenses even to drivers in their 90s.
But don’t presume the worst when you do feel obligated to have that dreaded conversation — many seniors will appreciate the concerns expressed by their loved ones, especially when they are offered sensible suggestions and assistance for maintaining their independence and quality of life.
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Nevada City, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at email@example.com.
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Several years ago, I wrote “The myth of the accidental overdose” (April 19, 2019, Other Voices, The Union).