Is it time to retire from driving? The decision can be a traumatic one for many seniors and their families. In his book, Understanding Media (1964), Marshall McLuhan stated, “The car has become… an article of dress without which we feel uncertain, unclad, and incomplete.” Giving up driving involves admitting that physical and/or mental skills are declining. It requires planning ahead and a reliance on others to share their time in order to complete errands, attend appointments or social functions, visit a loved one, or just get out of the house. It might even result in having to pay for a ride! At first glance, these reasons may all seem very troublesome. But let’s take a minute to consider another point of view.
Are your physical and mental abilities changing? This can be a hard pill to swallow as we may have little or no control over the changes. Driving is a task that requires multiple physical and mental skills, even though it may seem automatic after so many years. Various health conditions and medications may have a subtle or obvious effect on an individual’s functioning, which can in turn affect driving performance. Think about your vision (including peripheral vision and depth perception), hearing, reaction time, concentration level, ability to continuously process changes in the surrounding environment, and the need to make quick decisions. Driving is hard work! Wouldn’t it be nice to sit back and just enjoy the scenery?
Planning ahead and having to make adjustments to suit someone else’s schedule may be less convenient than driving yourself, but there are advantages. I spoke with a gentleman several months ago who could not drive after a hospitalization. With no family in the area, he began to use Cumberland County transportation to and from his physician appointments. He admitted that it took longer, however he also discovered that he enjoyed traveling through surrounding neighborhoods which he had never seen before, and never would have driven through on his own. If one has family and friends who are willing and able to provide a ride, one has the pleasure of company while carrying out some of the routine tasks of life. Your “driver” is also readily available, if needed, to provide an extra pair of hands to complete a task, or to provide a second opinion about a decision.
While many communities provide free transportation for seniors (call your local Office of Aging for more information), it may be easier or more convenient to pay privately for transportation assistance. While a taxi or other public transportation may be an option in some areas, home care agencies can provide door to door service according to your schedule. You may think this service is too expensive, but remember it isn’t cheap to purchase and maintain a car either. Let someone else worry about insurance, routine and emergency maintenance, inspections, and the price of gas!
Talking about the advantages and disadvantages of driving does not fully answer our initial question. It might be easier if there was a certain age when everyone was expected to hand over the car keys, but in reality, the abilities of older drivers vary greatly from person to person. The need to stop driving may be obvious in certain situations, and much grayer in others. In any case, it can be a difficult topic for families to discuss. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has published a guide called “Talking With Older Drivers.” It offers information about PA policies relating to older drivers, helpful tips for safer driving, and a list of additional resources. This publication (#345) is available on their website at www.dot.state.pa.us. Families often look to physicians for assistance when they suspect an older person is no longer competent to drive. Physicians do not have the authority to take away a person’s license, but they are required by law to report to PennDOT if an individual has a medical condition that could negatively impact the ability to drive safely. There are also professionals available who are licensed to conduct assessments to determine if individuals are able to continue driving safely. For more information, visit www.aota.org/olderdriver or www.aded.net. In our area, these assessments can be scheduled through Healthsouth Rehabilitation Hospital or Hershey Medical Center. Reminding seniors who have questionable driving practices that they are risking not only their own lives, but the lives of everyone on the road with them, can sometimes provide enough motivation for them to hand over the car keys.
The attitudes of our society about the “right” to drive may also contribute to the reluctance of seniors to admit that maybe their driving days should be over. If the following quotes ring true to you, when someone else suggests that the time has come, how cooperative will you be with relinquishing your driving privileges?
“The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we ALL believe that we are above average drivers.” ~Dave Barry, Things That It Took Me 50 Years to Learn
“Americans are broad-minded people. They’ll accept the fact that a person can be an alcoholic, a dope fiend, a wife beater, and even a newspaperman, but if a man doesn’t drive, there is something wrong with him.” ~Art Buchwald, How Un-American Can You Get?, Have I Ever Lied to You?, 1966
Karen Kaslow, RN