Tuesday, September 05, 2000

Too old to drive

Giving up the car keys can be traumatic for seniors, family

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Edgar Barnes, 81, quit driving because of blackouts.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
        Edgar Barnes feels like a kid again, but at 81, he's not happy about it. Mr. Barnes gave up driving two years ago because he had blackouts. His daughter and son-in-law convinced him to stop driving and move into their Blue Ash home.

        “I used to say, "Mother, may I borrow the car?' Those days were gone and forgotten,” Mr. Barnes says. “Now, they're back again. I've gone full circle. Now, I've got to put a reservation in to go somewhere. I don't blame my daughter and son (in-law). If I would be driving and something happened, I'd feel terrible.”

        Getting an older person to stop driving is one of the hardest things a family will ever have to do. That's because losing driving privileges is among the most traumatic rites of passage. Many seniors don't give in easily, resulting in contentious battles with children.

        With people living longer and baby boomers, now 36-54, turning gray, the issue is coming of age. Older people are the fastest-growing group of drivers.

  • Eight signs of trouble
  • 'Crash tests' will weed out high-risk drivers
  • Resources for older drivers, families
        However, there's no need to grab the car keys at the first sign of trouble, says Barbara Spreitzer-Berent, a Michigan gerontologist. She recommends a graduated approach in getting an older driver to stop driving:

        • Have a conversation with the senior early.

        • Find ways to extend a senior's driving tenure.

        • Investigate alternative methods of transportation when driving is no longer possible.

The talk

               The biggest mistakes families make is waiting too long to bring up the subject and coming on too strong in the first conversation, says Ms. Spreitzer-Berent, president of Quest Learning Resources, a Royal Oak, Mich. training and consulting company that addresses the interests of older adults and family caregivers.

  Here are driver's license renewal procedures in the Tristate:
  • Ohio — All residents must renew their license every four years. A vision test is required for all ages.
  • Kentucky — All residents must renew their license every four years. No additional tests are required for any age.
  • Indiana — Residents age 75 and older must renew their license every three years; all others must renew every four years. As of June 1, all drivers must take a peripheral vision test, along with the standard vision test.
  Starting January, any Indiana driver, regardless of age, must submit to a driving test after exceeding a yet-to-be-determined number of accidents, driver's license points or traffic violations.
        “Try to talk about driving issues fairly early, before there's even a problem,” she recommends.

        Family members, friends and professionals should be as objective as possible. Families often tell her their mom or dad is a menace on the road. When she asks why they're concerned, they respond that the driver is 86.

        “When we approach someone from the standpoint, "Dad, you're 86. You're too old to drive,' you're not starting out on a very substantial footing,” Ms. Spreitzer-Berent says. “That can put up barriers to resolving driving problems in a productive way.”

        She recommends a better way to start the conversation: “Gosh, Dad, I noticed some new dings and dents in your car. What's going on?” or “Gosh Mom, I noticed when we were driving together earlier today we went through a couple of stop signs. What's happening?”

        “Like any sensitive topic in life, not just driving, it's opening the door to a conversation, treating the person as a partner in the decision, giving another person time to share their position, giving a person a chance to explain,” Ms. Spreitzer-Berent says. “It opens up communication between two people rather than creating defensiveness.”

Explore possibilities

               Family members should pay attention to red flags that driver skills are declining: dings and dents, making left-hand turns from the right lane, running stop signs, getting lost in familiar neighborhoods.

        “The red flags don't necessarily mean people need to stop driving, but they need to pay attention to one's driving,” Ms. Spreitzer-Berent says. “There's a million ways they can improve their driving capabilities before they actually think about stopping driving.”

        Among them: getting medical and eye exams to determine if any conditions can be corrected to improve driving, changing driving habits and taking driver refresher courses.

        Older drivers often begin limiting themselves, says Dr. Robert Luchi, a professor of medicine and founding director of Huffington Center on Aging at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston.

        “They know they shouldn't drive at night or on busy freeways,” Dr. Luchi says. “They don't drive at busy times. They don't drive when roads are slick.”

        Carolyn Caldwell of Westwood teaches AARP 55 Alive classes, a driver refresher course primarily for senior citizens. She teaches them about slowing down, avoiding left-hand turns, giving up their right-of-way until other cars are gone, mapping alternative routes.

        Most take the class to get lower insurance rates, Mrs. Caldwell says, but they soon realize they've learned how to prolong their driving.

        “Driving is their freedom, and when they no longer have that freedom, some of them lose the will to live,” she says. “From then on, they have to call and ask somebody. . . . They want to do it for themselves.”


               This is all so hard because the stakes are high. Whether the older driver is forced or voluntarily stops driving, the result is the same: loss of independence and isolation. Public transportation and family members can't match the convenience of having your own wheels.

        After Olive Ryan's doctor told her she couldn't drive because of an aneurysm and powerful medications, she went home and sat alone, stroking her yellow Labrador. “I sat there and cried to myself. The dog and I.”

        She later moved in with her daughter and family in Symmes Township. Although she hasn't driven for more than a year, it's still tough to accept.

        “This is driving me wild,” the 73-year-old woman says. “When you're used to being active, it's terrible. It makes you dependent, and I'm used to being independent.”

        Mrs. Ryan relies on the Sycamore Senior Center van while family members work during the daytime. “This was a godsend for me,” she says of the van, which takes her to the center for noon meals, to doctor appointments and the grocery store.

        Family members should check out alternative methods of transportation to ease the transition to not driving, Ms. Spreitzer-Berent says.

        “Find out what driving means to the individual. Where are the most important places they want to go? We can often persuade them to stop driving if we can find ways to get them to the most important destinations.”

        One of Ms. Spreitzer-Berent's clients met his friends for lunch at the VFW every Friday. He didn't want to tell all of his friends he can't drive anymore, so she arranged for his best friend to take him. Once that need was met, it was easier to get him to stop driving.

        “The main thing we recommend is to allow enough time for all of this to happen, time to communicate about a sensitive issue, time to get used to the idea that driving may not be in the picture in the future, time to explore alternatives,” she says.

Nothing is perfect

               While experts promote a gradual process in getting a mature driver to stop driving, it doesn't always work.

        A Western Hills woman told her story only on the condition she not be named to prevent her parents from feeling embarrassed. She says she and her three siblings tried a soft, gradual approach for two years. They encouraged their father to take a driver refresher course and consider senior transportation options. He refused.

        Meanwhile, her parents' car grew pock-marked with dents and dings. A doctor suggested her father quit driving for medical reasons.

        When she and her siblings tried to talk about it, their father got so angry he ordered them out of the house.

        “To say it was unpleasant is an understatement,” says the woman. “My mother cried. We cried.”

        A few weeks after the incident, their father was admitted to the hospital. While he was hospitalized, their mother agreed to let them sell the car.

        That was three years ago, and her parents haven't forgotten, the woman says. “If you say it's a nice day, my Mom might say, "It would be if you hadn't taken our car.'

        “I think we did the right thing, but it was hard. Sometimes, you have to do something very, very unpleasant . . . I don't know of any easy way to do it.”

'Crash tests' will weed out high-risk drivers
Eight signs of trouble
Resources for older drivers, families

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