Independence plays a key role in the quality of life as a person ages. A large part of independence is being able to get around safely while driving. Unfortunately, a person’s ability to drive a car can change as they age. At what age should driving privileges be revoked? Is it simply a matter of age or should health be considered? These questions are often hotly debated both in public policy and in family conversations with elderly loved ones.
Today, people of all ages are becoming more dependent on having a car to get to work, school, the grocery store and the doctor’s office. As a result, there are more older adults out on the road ways than there have been before. For many older adults, having a car provides feelings of independence and adds to their overall quality of life. There are certainly health benefits to being able to drive too. Older adults that still drive are able to live a more active lifestyle and they have better access to healthy foods. These health benefits can reduce the risk of chronic disease or disability and can help maintain a healthy state of mind. Older adults who do not have a driver’s license are more likely to experience a decline in overall health and quality of life.
Unfortunately, aging does put older drivers at risk and we have to ask if the health benefits and independence of being able to drive, outweigh the risks of accident, injury and even death. The ability to drive safely can be impacted by the visual, cognitive and physical changes experienced by aging adults. Changes in vision can reduce the ability to see potential hazards in the road. Older eyes also need more time to adjust when light changes so it can be more difficult to see at dawn and dusk or with bright headlights or glaring sun. Age related decline in physical ability may reduce reaction times. Muscles do not contract as fast which means moving the foot from the gas pedal to the brake pedal in an emergency situation may happen much slower in an older adult. In addition to vision and physical changes, studies have shown that adults with cognitive impairment such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease may not realize they are no longer safe drivers and are almost twice as likely to be involved in a crash. Driving involves quite a bit of critical thinking and reasoning so as the mind ages, these aspects of driving become more challenging.
The question then becomes how to advise older adults when it is safe to drive and when it should be given up. The decision cannot be made on age alone. While there is a normal timeline of aging, overall health plays a large role in ability to remain independent. Vision screenings are a pretty standard test for renewing a driver’s license, and should continue to be used but a physical and cognitive test may need to be considered as well. Because of the benefits of driving, public policy and even families, should consider a more in depth testing process to both benefit and protect older drivers. If you have questions about your safety on the road or the safety of a loved one, ask your doctor before you head to the DMV to renew your driver’s license.
Proctor Place is a Life Care Retirement Community. For more information about Proctor Place or to schedule a personalized tour, please contact Amy Durbin at
(309) 566-4204. Visit us online at www.proctorplace.org