Driving As You Age

It starts with an increase in the number of close calls you have while driving down the road, or maybe a few minor scrapes and dents pulling into the garage or around the mailbox. You get lost a time or two driving to the grocery store. Then loved ones express concern that it may not be safe to let you keep your car keys, and soon, you too start to doubt if you should be behind the wheel. You know that you are getting older and your vision and reflexes aren’t what they used to be, but you still feel fairly mobile and independent, and the prospect of giving that up scares you or makes you feel like you have failed somehow.

As we advance in years, our minds and our bodies begin to deteriorate and slowly lose their function. When this happens, there can be both a general decline in the various faculties needed to safely drive and an increase in health problems that can limit one’s driving abilities. Just because you have reached your senior years, however, doesn’t necessarily mean you have to retire from driving. Having a better understanding of the challenges you are going through, and what can be done about them can give you the tools you need to safely stay behind the wheel longer.


What Happens As We Age?

Your vision may start to deteriorate. Things will become harder to see in general, and it will also become more difficult to gauge distances. This can make defensive driving very hard and left turns will become especially challenging. 

Your reaction time will slow. It will become harder and take longer to get your foot from the gas to the brake. This will force you to travel at lower speeds and many times will have you guessing when you need to brake instead of braking when needed. 

The amount and types of medication you need to take will increase. Many times, while the medication is helping you medically, it can do things to hinder your ability to drive. Having clarity on your medication and the mix of prescriptions and vitamins you take is important. 


Is Retiring From Driving My Only Option?

Absolutely not. In many cases, our aging patients haven't had their driving reviewed by a professional or received any driver training since their original license test when they were sixteen years old. Your body and your mind are changing. You may simply need to better understand these changes and get training on how to successfully drive with them. 

Driving is your independence and your freedom. It also gives you a sense of pride to maintain your license and your car. You shouldn't have to give that up, unless you truly are unsafe to be behind the wheel. Retirement should be the last step, not the first and only step in your new driving journey.

How Aging Affects Cognitive Abilities

  1. Difficulty paying attention, especially to multiple stimuli such as traffic, the weather, stop signs and the radio. 
  2. Quick decisions become more difficult and reaction time slows. This can make it difficult to quickly brake, back out of a parking spot, or turn left across traffic. 
  3. Memory loss can make it difficult to remember driving directions or even forget where you were driving to altogether. 
  4. Forgetfulness can also lead to not maintaining the vehicle. This can be the smallest, simplest thing like filling the gas tank to the bigger routine maintenance items that arise. 

How Aging Can Affect Physical Abilities

  1. Muscle weakness can make it harder to hold your arms up to the steering wheel for long periods. 
  2. Reduced stamina can make longer road trips exhausting and challenging. 
  3. Muscle coordination becomes a struggle and quick or precise movements can be more challenging. 
  4. Bladder and bowel control can be another issue for drivers. Being stuck in rush-hour traffic while suffering from incontinence is not only embarrassing but can distract drivers from the road.
  5. Aging can also bring on joint pain and arthritis, and tasks such as moving your foot between pedals or turning your neck to check for vehicles in your blind spot can become difficult.

How Aging Affects Visual Abilities

  1. A decline in overall visual acuity can affect your ability to read street signs or clearly identify other objects on the road
  2. Aging drivers can be more sensitive to glare, or have more difficulty differentiating similar colors, such as a grey car during twilight hours or a bicyclist with a green shirt along a grassy shoulder.
  3. Depth perception may also decline, making it harder to judge the distance between them and intersections or other vehicles.
  4. A decline of peripheral vision can make it difficult to maintain your awareness of things around you on the road.

What Next Street Looks For When Assessing

We work with each patient on an individual basis to determine what may be needed for them to continue to drive, or to help them make the transition into retirement from driving. We check the patient’s vision, assess how perceptive they are of stimuli, and measure the speed at which they react to stimuli. We also help determine how well they are physically able to function in the different ways needed to operate a motor vehicle. We check how well they can move their joints and test their balance and reflexes. Finally, we will give them a behind-the-wheel evaluation to determine the specific skills needed to be worked on to continue safely driving. We understand that this process can be scary and cause anxiety. It is always our goal to help people understand their changing driving abilities and make the best decisions for their future behind the wheel. 


Want to read and learn more?

Check out the Driver Rehab blog to learn more about driving while aging.

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