Giving Up the Wheel for a Passenger Seat As You Get Older

As we age, or have parents and grandparents who are getting older, we find the decision to stop driving a very complicated one. Giving up the car keys can bring up a lot of questions and emotions. Questions such as, “How will I get to my Doctor appointment? How will I get groceries? And what if there’s an emergency?” All these questions are valid and giving up the car keys never comes easy, often representing another loss at a time of life already full of significant losses — of independence, health, and lifetime companions. For practical and emotional reasons, then, giving up driving is a transition that everyone involved wants to put off for as long as possible.

Undoubtedly, no one wants to give up their independence. Yet, aging does not immediately mean a total loss of the ability to drive. Many drivers are able to recognize and voluntarily begin to make changes in their driving practices. For instance, some drivers decide to drive only during daylight, in safe weather conditions, and staying local to avoid freeways and highways.

But on occasion, there is also the driver who has driven for so long, that they firmly believe they can continue to drive until the day they die. If relatives and friends have begun to press the issue about your driving abilities, it may be time to reconsider your skills and take a hard and honest assessment at your driving abilities. And, it may be time to check your State’s local laws with regards to your license renewal process.

For example, Illinois is by far the strictest state when it comes to elderly drivers, where pursuant to code 625 ILCS 5/6-109  —  every applicant over 75 years old, for the renewal of a driver’s license must prove, by an actual demonstration, the applicant’s ability to exercise reasonable care in the safe operation of a motor vehicle. Texas on the other hand, requires drivers over 85 years to renew their license every two years.  And some states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma are much more liberal and do not have any specific laws regarding elderly driving.

If you are concerned, a certified driver rehabilitation specialist or even an occupational therapist can provide a complete evaluation of the skills needed to drive and recommend tools or car modifications to keep an individual driving as long as possible. He or she can also help disperse the blame from family and loved ones by providing a neutral third party perspective. When it’s time for an evaluation, just ask your doctor for a referral.

If possible, avoid giving up driving abruptly, as doing so may cause one to experience a profound sense of loss. If it is safe, try slowly transitioning yourself or the senior out of driving to allow time to adjust. For example, you or your loved one may begin the transition by no longer driving at night or on the freeways, or by using public transportation to specific appointments, such as the doctor’s.

But on a positive note, giving up driving can surprisingly have its benefits as well. Aside from the cost of car ownership (including registration, maintenance, insurance and gas) you may suddenly find yourself healthier too. Giving up driving may mean you find an urge to get out and walk to get to nearby places, and walking can help seniors boost their energy, get a better night’s sleep, and improve confidence. It can also help manage the symptoms of poor health and pain, keep your independence, and even reverse a few aging signs. And not only is exercise good for your body—it’s good for your mind, mood, and memory.

And finally, when the time comes, here are some suggestions on how to handle transitioning to a life on the passenger seat:

Public Transportation – In an area well connected with public transportation, it can be handy to know your bus, train, metro options and schedules. Check your local area and ask about a monthly pass or reduced prices for older adults.

Ride sharing – Family members, neighbors, and friends can be another great source for ride sharing. If you don’t want to part with your car, you can maybe let your child or grandchild “borrow” your car in exchange for rides when you need them. Or you can offer to share the costs of gas or return the favor in a different way, such as cooking a meal or helping with other work.

Community Shuttles/Senior Transit – Your local community may provide shuttle services, especially for medical appointments. Some medical facilities, such as those for veterans, also have transportation options for medical appointments. Your local place of worship may sometimes offer transit options too. And there are services such as those provided by AAA, committed to promoting practical transportation options for seniors who can no longer drive.

Taxis / Private Drivers – Taxis may be an excellent option for quick trips without a lot of prior scheduling. You can also look into options such as Uber and Lyft, which pick you up at your convenience.

Walking/Cycling – If your health allows, walking and cycling when you can is a great way to not only get around but also get some physical activity. Regular exercise lowers your risk for a variety of health conditions, including Alzheimer’s and dementia, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, colon cancer, and high blood pressure.

Self-Driving Cars – Autonomous driving technology will soon be reliable enough to change the lives of people with disabilities and the elderly, making it one more option available.

Adjusting to life without a car may be difficult at first; most likely, you’ve been driving for so long it feels unnatural and even quite depressing. It’s normal to be frustrated, angry, or upset. You might even feel ashamed or worry that you are losing your freedom. However, it takes a lot of courage to stop driving and put the safety of yourself and others first. You may even be pleasantly surprised on the health benefits giving up driving may bring to you or a loved one.

Guest blog by Vania Silva. Vania was suddenly faced with researching alternative methods of transportation when her Father (at the age of 56) unexpectedly suffered a stroke and lost his left side peripheral vision. Unfortunately, therapy helped but the blind spots created by the brain damage left him unable to drive permanently. 

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