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Driving means quality of life for older adults

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

As people get on the road for the Thanksgiving Holiday, some families worry that their elders’ driving skills are no longer up to speed. About 30 million drivers in America are older than 65 – and that number grows every year. Safety concerns come into tension with seniors’ quest to remain independent.


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Dow: Get your seat belts on girls…

Walter Dow is 81, and lives in a retirement community in near Medford, New Jersey with his fiancee, Pat Heller – she is 80. Walter and Pat can’t imagine their busy lives without being able to drive:

 Walter Dow and his finance, Pat Heller

Walter Dow and his finance, Pat Heller

Dow: To lose the privilege of driving, the way I see it right now it wouldn’t be possible to be happy.

Heller: We each go our own way and do different things so it represents total freedom to me.

Independence is the main issue for Pennsauken resident Claire Lewin. She is in her mid 80s

Lewin: I’m still in charge of my life, and in charge of being able to get places.

Lewin insists she is a safe driver. A few years back, she took a driver’s test to calm her children’s concerns, but she says this issue hasn’t been a source of conflict for her family. It is in other families. Adult children fret while elders refuse to hand over the keys.

Driving can come to signify control as other things slip away, says Adam Davey. He studies aging at Temple University. Spouses and friends die, health becomes fragile…

Walter Dow driving

Walter Dow driving

Davey: Driving on the other hand is something that, at least in terms of perceptions, is something that we have complete control over; I am fine to drive, I can continue to drive, and it’s how we get from A to B, is how we execute our wishes, in moving from one place to another.

It’s also about staying connected. Isolation typically leads to a decline in physical and mental health. Walter Dow volunteers at a food bank, and Pat paints at an art studio. While driving is integral to their quality of life, Walter has no problems admitting it’s getting more difficult:

Dow: I’m not as good a driver as I was ten years ago, it’s not improving, it’s going downhill.

As people age, their ability to process complex tasks slows down; so do their reaction times. Adam Davey says some senior drivers pick their route based on their limitations:

Davey: Older adults are at particular risk for accidents in left hand turn situations, and there are many examples of people who don’t make left-hand turns. They plan their route according to a series of right hand turns, as many as it takes to get there…

Claire Lewin, for example, avoids high-speed highways. But she drives to classes, the doctor, and to visit her children and friends. Driving allows her to stay in the house where she’s lived for more than 30 years.

Lewin: I would hate to change my living arrangement – but I might have to do that.
Maiken Scott: what other options are there?
Lewin: I REALLY don’t know.

For many communities, the link between aging and transportation has emerged as a major issue..

Duke: It’s not only how we age well, it’s how our Communities become places to age well, what can we do to help those communities become places where we can stay connected.

That’s Brian Duke; he is Director of the Bucks County Area Agency on Aging. This suburban county has a growing senior population, but limited access to mass transit. Duke says communities are looking for solutions – maybe using school buses to offer rides to seniors, or increasing volunteer programs. He says elderly mobility has to become part of the planning process:

Duke: If they build a beautiful 55 plus community in Bucks County, and there are many, and there are great people living in them, and there are many scattered throughout our county, but yet they are located 5 miles from the town’s center, the person moving in there isn’t thinking about this, and we need to help them think about this before they make a decision.

Claire Lewin says she thinks a lot about where she could live if she couldn’t drive anymore.

I’m not sure it isn’t a little bit late to be making a new place and new friends, that’s harder to do…. but I bet I could do it!

For now, Lewin plans to continue driving her ten-year-old Buick – taking her time getting where she needs to go.


  • Victor Kasun, Jr says:

    Watched the show. It was only OK. I am 56 yrs and I see many drivers under the senior age that are drivimg incorrectly: aggressive driving (yes, I know the defintion), speeding, not addiding to street signs, speed signs, encroching upon pedistrians, etc.

    I live on Rte 9 and gaining access to that road is horrible. It is a straight line from New Castle into Wilmington itself. It is governed by speed limit signs but as it travel the way I am always passed and I am doing the legal limit. New Castle Police seldom stop speeders (along their area), the county – the same, the wilmington, ditto. Want to help the our society (state pay for lost revenue, stop and ticket the offenders.

    When crossing the over pass of 295 into and away from N. J., I frequentl see cars entering Delaware Rte 9 North crossing from the I 295 crossing the lanes to merge onto Memorial Dr – during morning rush hour. Or cars leaving Halcyon Dr entering onto Rt 9 North, blocking southbound (Rt 9 South) thereby holding – up traffic; cars making a U-turn at Halcyon going back north Rt 9, passing Memorial Dr, only to stop or enter the Universal gas station or entering the Mc Donalds. I DO NOT SEE ANY SENIORS DRIVES DOING THIS STUFF! We are not inconsiderate; the other drivers are.

    Are we to blame for obeying the ordinance and trying to be good citizens?

    I have used the 911 number on several occassions to inform that call center of problems and I hope that has helped. I get off the road, make the call and then continue. It is what I do. I am told that it doesn’t get a response. I don;t want to believe that. If I can help some one else, That is what I want.

  • Terry Mroczek says:

    Disappointed that throughout your piece you never once mentioned the safety of the other drivers on the road with seniors who are still driving when they shouldn’t be. The senior citizen who broadsided me at a red light couple of years ago thought he was okay to drive. Independence is their chief concern? Safety is mine.

  • Matt Gurwell says:

    Keeping Us Safe is a national company that has developed the “Enhanced Self-Assessment Program” for senior drivers.

    This individualized program has been designed to serve as a valuable tool in helping older drivers (and their families) make appropriate decisions regarding the future of ones safe driving career.

    If the individual is a safe driver, we provide him or her with strategies on how to remain a safe driver as they progress through the aging process.

    If driving retirement is the appropriate decision, then we provide the individual (and their family) with acceptable alternatives, resources and a very specific plan to ensure a smooth and successful transition from the drivers seat to the passenger seat.

    We also offer two separate presentations for your group or organization:

    – A Safe Drive Through the Aging Process, and

    – Adults with Aging Parent Drivers

    Please visit our website or call toll-free 877-907-8841 to learn more about our exciting and unique programs for senior drivers AND their respective families. We can help!

    Matt Gurwell
    Founder & CEO
    Keeping Us Safe

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