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Driving and Aging: Plan Ahead

Examples of proactive ways for older drivers to remain behind the wheel include:

• Yearly eye exams and proper use of glasses and contacts as required
• Review by a pharmacist or physician of prescription and over-the-counter medications to reduce possible side effects and drug interactions
• Participation in driver safety/ improvement programs designed to sharpen and refresh driving skills

Another easy way for older adults to continue driving safely is to plan ahead—before the trip begins. These simple steps can help reduce the possibility of accidents:

• Plan driving routes in advance
• Drive during daylight and off-peak traffic hours
• Avoid distractions such as loud music and cell phone use—including texting

Well before retiring from their careers, most people make plans for their future financial security and health care needs. But the same attention rarely is given to another eventual reality of growing older—giving up the car keys. According to Washington University geriatrics specialist David Carr, MD, the topic warrants serious thought and discussion well before any action needs to be taken. Carr is the clinical director of the Division of Geriatrics and Nutritional Science at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

“The current practice is to continue driving right up until the decision to stop—and suddenly the older adult and family are faced with a crisis,” Carr says. “When this life change occurs abruptly, it comes as a complete shock, and often is accompanied by emotions such as anger and depression.”

Instead of waiting until a crisis point, Carr suggests that adults 65 and older begin investigating the many transportation options available to them and then trying them out. For those living in the St. Louis metropolitan area, that may mean learning MetroBus or MetroLink routes and how to purchase tickets, or exploring the other transportation options available for older adults. The St. Louis County Older Resident Program based in Clayton, Mo., is one example of an agency that provides rides for the aging population. Another first step might be as simple as letting a spouse, younger family member, or friend do the driving more often.

“It’s also helpful for older adults to understand the physical and mental changes that are a natural part of aging and how to combat their effects in order to remain a safe, competent driver for as long as possible,” says Carr.

Open communication between older adults and their children or other concerned family members is an essential part of the “how long do I keep driving” planning process.

“The decision to drive—or stop— impacts older adults and their families,” he says. “Discontinuing driving means a loss of independence, and that can lead to emotional distress and even result in a move to an assisted-living facility. So frank and ongoing discussions are essential to ensure this transition is accomplished as smoothly and as sensitively as possible.”

For more information or to schedule a driving assessment, contact DRIVING Connections, The Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis, 314-658-3846.

Online Resources for Older Drivers

A number of websites offer help for older adult drivers and their families.

  • seniordriving.aaa.com includes “Roadwise Rx,” a free online tool that helps users understand how some medications may
    affect driving
  • thehartford.com/mature-marketexcellence has information about dementia and driving
  • cdc.gov/features/olderdrivers includes
    articles and tips sheets for older drivers
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