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(David Sucsy/iStockphoto)
(David Sucsy/iStockphoto)

Drive, She Said

Seniors and driving: a problem for the aged Add to ...

If you’ve ever realized someone you love shouldn’t be driving ever again before they’ve arrived at the same conclusion, you know the debates, anger and frustration that can follow.

Our driving careers go through many stages, and most of us recognize each stage has its own challenges. Teenagers, with little or no experience, can make for white-knuckled waits until they get home; driving with small kids having a meltdown in the back seat is a terrible distraction; experience comes with middle age, but also bad habits long ingrained. However, the most contentious discussion is always about seniors and driving.

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Ontario legislation is weak and, while doctors are required by law to report any patient who poses a risk on the road, failure to do so frequently becomes an issue only after the patient has caused injury or death behind the wheel. Doctors are in the position of playing – literally – bad cop, and risk alienating or enraging patients determined to hold on to their licences. With no road testing being performed by the ministry, seniors often pass a written test confident their skills are intact. Family members usually know otherwise.

Teens are involved in twice as many fatal collisions, but seniors have the highest crash rate per kilometre driven. This makes the most frequent self-policing factors (no night driving, no highways, no rush hour) also the most misleading: it’s not where or when seniors are driving, it’s if they’re driving when they shouldn’t be, period.

More of us are living longer and, as we see attendant rates of dementia and cognitive impairment climbing, and a lack of political will to tackle the problem (remember, seniors vote, and politicians hate risking votes), it will become incumbent on families and seniors themselves to take action.

We can’t avoid it, so we should start making it more positive and palatable. Surprisingly (or maybe not), it’s seniors themselves who can turn the equation around, according to Dr. Louisa Gembora, a psychologist and rehabilitation specialist who also spent three seasons as an expert on Canada’s Worst Driver.

“It’s clear that impairment, from many things, can be found at any age. It’s important not to dismiss that and only concentrate on seniors. But the fact is that, after age 85, it’s cognitive impairment that jumps to about 34 per cent,” Gembora said. Defined as affecting “the ability to think, concentrate, formulate ideas, reason and remember,” it is easy to see why we need to reframe the problem to find more creative solutions.

We all experience a deterioration in function as we age; it’s normal, and we anticipate it and take precautions in most other areas of our lives. The same way we start monitoring for health concerns we once ignored, as drivers we need to accept that our reflexes will slow and our sight and hearing might be diminishing.

Gembora offers some signs older drivers need to take note of, and prepare for:

  • Friends or family won’t drive with you, or express concern in doing so.
  • If you notice you’re increasing the volume on TVs or phones, and loved ones want your hearing checked, you are at increased risk to miss many cues on the road, from unexplained scrapes and dents to sirens.
  • Driving too slowly, yet believing everyone else is simply too fast. Timidity is dangerous.
  • Forgetfulness; overlooking car maintenance and not noticing problems before they become dangerous.
  • Physical limitations, like being unable to turn your head or properly engage the pedals.

The good news? At any age, but especially as drivers age, they can be pro-active. Investigate private or class instruction – an afternoon, a weekend or several days – to brush up skills, introduce new techniques and automotive changes, and keep you sharp.

For those with existing health issues, there are instructors trained as driver rehab specialists. There are many options for adjusting your skill set so you can keep driving; these instructors are also the professionals who will tell you if it’s time to get out from behind the wheel. Above all, doing this before you’re having a showdown in your doctor’s office or in your home means you take it seriously, and will welcome a fair evaluation and instruction that will protect you and everyone else on the road.

Families need to consider what a licence means to the person they’re concerned about. Independence, freedom and pride are all things none of us surrender easily. The increased risk of isolation must be addressed, as well as day-to-day activities we take for granted. Impairment comes in many forms and is a problem across the spectrum, but aging brings some unique challenges.

It’s time to shift the discussion away from stereotypes and sweeping generalizations so we can keep good drivers fit and unsafe drivers in the passenger seat.

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