The Right Car for Senior Drivers
As we grow older, we experience changes that can make it less safe to drive. Eye diseases, arthritis and memory problems can make it harder to steer, react and make good decisions behind the wheel. Even routine age-related changes in vision, reflexes and flexibility might put us at greater risk of an accident.
As seniors experience these changes, they often wonder if it’s safe to keep driving. Family members wonder, too, and they often pressure an older loved one to give up the car keys before the senior wants to!
But the decision to stop driving shouldn’t be made lightly. Studies show driving keeps seniors independent and active in the community. And as we are living through the COVID-19 pandemic, alternative transportation sources a senior might access could potentially expose them to the coronavirus. Others may be unavailable at this time. Many older adults are finding themselves stuck at home, at risk of inactivity and depression.
Senior Driving Safety
Before a senior makes the decision to stop driving, the first step is to have their driving skills assessed. Ask the doctor for a driving safety evaluation recommendation. There are also senior driver’s ed classes that help older drivers improve their skills.
But sometimes a senior’s driving skills aren’t the problem. Instead, their car may not have kept up with their needs, or they aren’t driving the right car. Maybe the car is too large. Maybe it doesn’t have optimum visibility. Maybe the dashboard control panel is hard to read. Seniors can have their car assessed through the CarFit program (www.car-fit.org), which is sponsored by AAA, the AARP and the American Occupational Therapy Association.
Sometimes a few adjustments and a little extra safety equipment can make the car a better fit. This might include larger mirrors, a thicker steering wheel and better visors. Drivers can be very attached to their cars and all the familiar controls, so if this does the trick, great.
On the other hand, seniors who are still driving a beloved, familiar 20-year-old car might not realize that safety features have come a long way since then. A lot of gadgets that are standard in today’s cars can provide an extra measure of safety for older drivers. These include technology to warn the driver of a potential collision or lane departure, backup and side mirror cameras, navigation assistance, and seats that can be fine tuned for a driver’s ergonomic needs.
The American Automobile Association (AAA) website offers a detailed list of automotive features that can support safe driving for seniors with conditions such as arthritis of the hands, limited range of motion, vision problems, decreased leg strength and cognitive challenges.
There might be a learning curve as a senior driver adjusts to these new technologies—what, no key? But these safety features can extend their driving years. And the senior driver’s ed classes mentioned above can help them adapt to their new car.
If the doctor or a driving specialist says a senior is no longer safe driving under any circumstances, it’s very important to create an alternative transportation plan. Your local senior transit program will be following local guidance during the COVID-19 pandemic, so find out the current status of public transportation, ride-sharing services, and accessible transportation. If you live in a senior living community, find out what they offer. Don’t let giving up the keys lead to giving up an active life in the community, even at this time. An Aging Life Care Manager can help you and your family walk through those options and conversations when the time comes.