Driving means quality of life for older adults

    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.

    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.
    (Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/grant_harder/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Listen:

    [audio:091123msdriving.mp3]

    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.

    Lewin:
    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.

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