People normally feel helpless without their own means of transportation. Those who have ever had their car break down and at the shop for a few days, know how it feels to be striped of their independence. For many people a car is a source of income to get to and from work or a source of freedom. However, for quite a few elderly adults, their ability to drive is their last bit of independence left.
Cindy McKinnon, activities director of the Southfork River Therapy and Living Center in Salem, said the center gets a few elderly residents who miss taking road trips every now and then. "For an elderly person (driving) is like being 16 again," McKinnon said.
"We had a couple of residents, they were roommates, and what they wanted to do was take a road trip to Vegas," McKinnon said. "We've had a couple of residents up here that drove." McKinnon said there are currently no residents that drive.
The running stereotype is when a younger person and a senior are involved in a two-vehicle collision, the younger person is usually at fault because of their inexperience behind the wheel. However, this is not always the case.
Many seniors fear their family or caregivers taking away the keys to the car because of their age, but it is not age that is the problem with elderly drivers getting into accidents. The real problems are the physical and mental changes that go along with aging.
Accompanying aging are signs of growing old. Some of these signs are weaker muscles and arthritis, which makes everyday tasks more difficult, and a slower response time on any decision making. Sometimes, the elongated response time is a mixture of both weakness and decision-making skills. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, "About 20 major decisions are needed for each mile driven; drivers frequently have less than one-half second to act to avoid a collision." That half second doesn't seem like a long time, especially for the elderly.
Some other effects of aging that might affect a driver's abilities, according to Senior Solutions of America, include loss of clarity in vision and hearing, drowsiness from medications, reduced ability to focus or concentrate and a lower tolerance for alcohol.
"The record of older drivers is good, when you consider the number of collisions per driver, but when you consider the number of collisions per miles driven, this record is surprisingly bad," according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "Older drivers have fewer collisions, because they drive less and at less dangerous times. But when they are in a crash, it can be very serious. In a two-car fatal collision, where one driver is 65 or older, the older driver is 3.5 times more likely to be killed. Injuries that are seen as moderate to severe for most people are fatal to people aged 55 or older."
"A lot of (fatal elderly injuries in car accidents) is because your body isn't able to heal as quickly," McKinnon said.
For those who may be wondering about their elderly loved one's driving abilities, or their own, and whether to take the keys away, Senior Solutions of America has a Web site, www.aging-parents-and-elder-care.com, that offers a list of signs to watch for. This list includes, does your loved one:
* Drive at inappropriate speeds, either too fast or too slow?
* Ask passengers to help check if it is clear to pass or turn?
* Respond slowly to or not notice pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers?
* Ignore, disobey or misinterpret street signs and traffic lights?
* Fail to yield to other cars or pedestrians who have the right-of-way?
* Fail to judge distances between cars correctly?
* Become easily frustrated and angry (while driving)?
* Appear drowsy, confused or frightened (while driving)?
* Have one or more near accidents or near misses?
* Drift across lane markings or bump into curbs?
* Forget to turn on headlights after dusk?
* Have difficulty with glare from oncoming headlights, streetlights or other bright or shiny objects, especially at dawn, dusk and at night?
* Have difficulty turning their head, neck, shoulders or body while driving or parking?
* Ignore signs of mechanical problems, including underinflated tires? One in four cars has at least one tire that is underinflated by eight pounds or more; low tire pressure is a major cause of accidents.
* Have too little strength to turn the wheel quickly in an emergency such as a tire failure, a child darting into traffic, etc.?
* Get lost repeatedly, even in familiar areas?
McKinnon added another helpful sign that it might be time to put away the keys and park the car. "Needing gas but forgetting to get it on a regular basis," McKinnon said. "Not being able to see over the steering wheel (is another)."
These are just a few warning signs. If the answer is "Yes" to one or more of these questions, one needs to take a more in-depth look at medical problems or any medication that could be hindering their loved one's driving. Sometimes a medical condition can be compensated for with medication or surgery. If a physician believes it is the medication that may be causing the problem, the doctor may prescribe something else. But there are instances where there is not much a doctor can do and may ask the patient to consider giving up the keys to the car.
Though one's driving abilities may be hindered by the affects of old age, that doesn't mean it's the end of the road. There are other ways to compensate for medical conditions or other signs of aging. Senior Solutions of America suggests, "Avoid driving at night and, if possible, at dawn or dusk. Drive only to familiar locations. Avoid driving to places far away from home. Avoid expressways (freeways) and rush hour traffic. Leave plenty of time to get where (you) are going and don't drive alone."
There are also driver safety programs specifically designed for the elderly. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) have these types of driver safety courses around the nation. Horseshoe Bend has one of these courses available Jan. 19 at 8:30 a.m. "The class is designed for people 50 and over," said Darleen Scheer, president of the Horseshoe Bend AARP chapter and a driving instructor for the program.
Scheer said those who participate in the program receive a three-year certificate that can save and estimated $200 on auto insurance.
The four hour class costs $12 for AARP members and $14 for nonmembers. Scheer said this year the class will be conducted at the First Baptist Church in Horseshoe Bend.
"(The class) is very worth while, especially for people to update their driving skills," Scheer said. "It's a good system that AARP has provided."
For more information about the program or to register for the class call 870-670-5707.