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Driving Dilemmas: Risk vs. Independence

By  Kristine Dwyer, Staff Writer

 

Driving a car is a symbol of independence and competence and is closely tied to an individual’s identity. It also represents freedom and control and allows older adults to gain easy access to social connections, health care, shopping, activities and even employment. At some point, however, it is predictable that driving skills will deteriorate and individuals will lose the ability to safely operate a vehicle. Even though age alone does not determine when a person needs to stop driving, the decision must be balanced with personal and public safety. Driving beyond one’s ability brings an increased safety risk or even life-threatening situations to all members of society. Statistics show that older drivers are more likely than others to receive traffic citations for failing to yield, making improper left turns, and running red lights or stop signs, which are all indications of a decrease in driving skills. Understandably, dealing with impaired older drivers is a delicate issue.

The road to driving cessation is anything but smooth. Each year, hundreds of thousands of older drivers across the country must face the end of their driving years and become transportation dependent. Unfortunately, finding other means of transportation has not noticeably improved in recent years, leading to a reluctance among older drivers to give up driving privileges and of families to remove the car keys. The primary issue facing older drivers is how to adapt to changes in driving performance while maintaining necessary mobility. Despite being a complicated issue, this process can be more successful when there is a partnership between the physician, older driver, family or caregiver.

Dramatic headlines like these have ignited national media debates and triggered the pressing need for more testing and evaluation of elderly drivers, especially with the swell of the Baby Boomer generation: “Family of four killed by an 80-year-old man driving the wrong way on Highway 169.  86-year-old driver killed 10 people when his vehicle plowed through a farmers’ market in southern California. 93-year-old man crashed his car into a Wal-Mart store, sending six people to the hospital and injuring a 1-year-old child.”

According to the Hartford Insurance Corporation, statistics of older drivers show that after age 75, there is a higher risk of being involved in a collision for every mile driven. The rate of risk is nearly equal to the risk of younger drivers ages 16 to 24. The rate of fatalities increases slightly after age 65 and significantly after age 75. Although older persons with health issues can be satisfactory drivers, they have a higher likelihood of injury or death in an accident.

Undoubtedly, an older adult’s sense of independence vs. driving risk equals a very sensitive and emotionally charged topic. Older adults may agree with the decline of their driving ability, yet feel a sense of loss, blame others, attempt to minimize and justify, and ultimately may feel depressed at the thought of giving up driving privileges. Driving is an earned privilege and in order to continue to drive safely, guidelines and regulations must be in place to evaluate and support older drivers.
 
Dementia and Driving Cessation
Alzheimer’s disease and driving safety is of particular concern to society. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common cause of dementia in later life and is a progressive and degenerative brain disease. In the process of driving, different regions of the brain cooperate to receive sensory information through vision and hearing, and a series of decisions are made instantly to successfully navigate. The progression of AD can be unpredictable and affect judgment, reasoning, reaction time and problem-solving. For those diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, it is not a matter of if retirement from driving will be necessary, but when. Is it any wonder that driving safety is compromised when changes are occurring in the brain? Where dementia is concerned, driving retirement is an inevitable endpoint for which active communication and planning among drivers, family, and health professionals are essential.

Current statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association indicate that 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and this number is expected to rise to 11-16 million by the year 2050. Many people in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s can continue to drive; however, they are at an increased risk and driving skills will predictably worsen over time. The Alzheimer’s Association’s position on driving and dementia supports a state licensing procedure that allows for added reporting by key individuals coupled with a fair, knowledgeable, medical review process.

Overall, the assessment of driving fitness in aging individuals, and especially those with dementia, is not clear cut and remains an emerging and evolving field today.

Physician’s Role in Driving Cessation
While most older drivers are safe, this population is more prone to vehicle accidents due to decreased senses, chronic illness and medication-related issues. The three primary functions that are necessary for driving and need to be evaluated are: vision, perception, and motor function. As the number of older drivers rises, patients and their families will increasingly turn to the physicians for guidance on safe driving. This partnership seems to be a key to more effective decision-making and the opinions of doctors vs. family are often valued by older drivers. Physicians are in a forefront position to address physical, sensory and cognitive changes in their aging patients. They can also help patients maintain mobility through proper counseling and referrals to driver evaluation programs. This referral may avoid unnecessary conflict when the doctor, family members or caregivers, and older drivers have differing opinions. (It should be noted that driver evaluation programs are usually not covered by insurance and may require an out-of-pocket cost.)

Not all doctors agree that they are the best source for making final decisions about driving. Physicians may not be able to detect driving problems based on office visits and physical examinations alone. Family members should work with doctors and share observations about driving behavior and health issues to help older adults limit their driving or stop driving altogether. Ultimately, counseling for driving retirement and identifying alternative methods of transportation should be discussed early on in the care process, prior to a crisis. Each state has an Area Agency on Aging program that can be contacted for information, and referrals can be made to a social worker or community agency that provides transportation services.

Resources do exist to help physicians assess older adults with memory impairments, weigh the legal and ethical responsibilities, broach the topic of driving retirement and move toward workable plans. The Hartford Insurance Corporation, for example, offers two free publications that make excellent patient handouts: At the Crossroads: A Guide to Alzheimer's Disease, Dementia and Driving and We Need to Talk: Family Conversations with Older Drivers. These resources reveal warning signs and offer practical tips, sound advice, communication starters, and planning forms. Other resources can be found through the Alzheimer's Association. Physicians can also refer to the laws and reporting requirements for unsafe drivers in their state and work proactively with patients and their families or caregivers to achieve driving retirement before serious problems occur. Ultimately, assessing and counseling patients about their fitness to drive should be part of the medical practice for all patients as they age and face health changes.
 
Driver’s Role in Driving Cessation
 “How will you know when it is time to stop driving?” was a question posed to older adults in a research study. Responses included “When the stress level from my driving gets high enough, I’ll probably throw my keys away” and “When you scare the living daylights out of yourself, that’s when it’s time to stop.” These responses are clues to a lack of insight and regard for the social responsibility of holding a driver’s license and the critical need for education, evaluation and planning.

Realizing one can no longer drive can lead to social isolation and a loss of personal or spousal independence, self-sufficiency, and even employment. In general, older drivers want to decide for themselves when to quit, a decision that often stems from the progression of medical conditions that affect vision, physical abilities, perceptions and, consequently, driving skills. There are many things that an older adult can do to be a safe driver and to participate in his or her own driving cessation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that older adults:

  • Exercise regularly to increase strength and flexibility.
  • Limit driving only to daytime, low traffic, short radius, clear weather
  • Plan the safest route before driving and find well-lit streets, intersections with left turn arrows, and easy parking.
  • Ask the doctor or pharmacist to review medicines—both prescription and over-the counter—to reduce side effects and interactions.
  • Have eyes checked by an eye doctor at least once a year. Wear glasses and corrective lenses as required.
  • Preplan and consider alternative sources and costs for transportation and volunteer to be a passenger

Family’s or Caregiver’s Role in Driving Cessation
Initially, it may seem cruel to take an older person's driving privilege away; however, genuine concern for older drivers means much more than simply crossing fingers in hopes that they will be safe behind the wheel. Families need to be vigilant about observing the driving behavior of older family members. One key question to be answered that gives rise to driving concerns is “Would you feel safe riding along with your older parent driving or having your child ride along with your parent?” If the answer is “no,” then the issue needs to be addressed openly and in a spirit of love and support. Taking an elder’s driving privileges away is not an easy decision and may need to be done in gradual steps. Offering rides, enlisting a volunteer driver program, experiencing public transportation together, encouraging vehicle storage during winter months, utilizing driver evaluation programs and other creative options, short of removing the keys, can be possible solutions during this time of transition.

Driving safety should be discussed long before driving becomes a problem. According to the Hartford Insurance survey, car accidents, near misses, dents in the vehicle and health changes all provide the chance to talk about driving skills. Early, occasional and honest conversations establish a pattern of open dialogue and can reinforce driving safety issues. Appealing to the love of children or grandchildren can instill the thought that their inability to drive safely could lead to the loss of an innocent life. Family members or caregivers can also form a united front with doctors and friends to help older drivers make the best driving decisions. If evaluations and suggestions have been made and no amount of rational discussion has convinced the senior to cease driving, then an anonymous report can be made to the Department of Motor Vehicles in each state.

 According to the Alzheimer’s Association, strategies that may lead to driving cessation when less drastic measures fail include:

  1. Family meetings to discuss issues and concerns
  2. Disabling or removing the car
  3. Filing down the keys
  4. Placing an “Expired” sticker over the driver’s license
  5. Cancelling the vehicle registration
  6. Preventing the older driver from renewing his or her driver's license
  7. Speaking with the driver’s doctor to write a prescription not to drive, or to schedule a formal driving assessment

Finally, it is suggested that family members learn about the warning signs of driving problems, assess independence vs. the public safety, observe the older driver behind the wheel or ride along, discuss concerns with a physician, and explore alternative transportation options.
 
Solutions
 
There are a multitude of solutions and recommendations that can be made in support of older drivers. Public education and awareness is at the forefront. An educational program that includes both classroom and on the road instruction can improve knowledge and enhance driving skills.

The AAA Foundation provides several safe driving Web sites with tools for seniors and their loved ones to assess the ability to continue driving safely.  These include AAAseniors.com and seniordrivers.org.  They also sponsor a series of Senior Driver Expos around the country where seniors and their loved ones can learn about senior driving and mobility challenges and have a hands-on opportunity to sample AAA's suite of research-based senior driver resources. Information on the Expos is available at aaaseniors.com/seniordriverexpo.

AARP offers an excellent driver safety program that addresses defensive driving and age-related changes, and provides tools to help judge driving fitness. Expanding this program or even requiring participation seems to be a viable entry point for tackling the challenges of driving with the aging population.

CarFit is an educational program that helps older adults check how well their personal vehicles "fit" them and if the safety features are compatible with their physical characteristics. This includes height of the car seat, mirrors, head restraints, seat belts, and proper access to the pedals. CarFit events are scheduled throughout the country and a team of trained technicians and/or health professionals work with each participant to ensure their cars are properly adjusted for their comfort and safety.

Modification of driving policies to extend periods of safe driving is another solution. Older drivers nearing the end of their safe driving years could ‘retire’ from driving gradually, rather than ‘give up’ the driver’s license.  An older adult can be encouraged to relinquish the driver’s license and be issued a photo identification card at the local driver’s bureau.

The Alzheimer’s Association proposes several driving assessment and evaluation options. Among them are a vision screening by an optometrist, cognitive performance testing (CPT) by an occupational therapist, motor function screening by a physical or occupational therapist, and a behind the wheel assessment by a driver rehabilitation specialist. Poor performances on these types of tests have been correlated with poor driving outcomes in older adults, especially those with dementia. Requiring a driving test after a certain age to include both a written test and a road test may be an option considered by each state.  Finally, continued input and guidance will be necessary from AARP, state licensing programs, transportation planners, and policymakers to meet the needs of our aging driving population.

It is appropriate to regard driving as an earned privilege and independent skill that is subject to change in later life. In general, having an attitude of constant adjustment until an older individual has to face the actual moment of driving cessation seems to be a positive approach. Without recognizing the magnitude of this transition, improving the quality of life in old age will be compromised. Keeping our nation’s roads safe while supporting older drivers is a notable goal to set now and for the future.

 

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