The question of whether people should continue to drive well into old age is a contentious one. Driving can help older adults stay mobile, independent, and connected to their loved ones and their communities. Yet, data consistently shows that driving gets riskier with age. While old age alone is not a reason to stop driving, age related physical and cognitive challenges such as slower reflexes or vision troubles can make driving difficult and dangerous especially after age 80.
Deterioration of vision, hearing and medical conditions can interfere with an older adult’s ability to safely operate a car. Having any of the following factors does not mean an older adult should immediately stop driving, but they can elevate risks and warrant monitoring.
Physical and mental impairments that accompany aging, from Parkinson’s disease to dementia, can compromise driving agility and judgment. If you have questions about your ability to drive given your health problems, consult with your physician if possible, and raise the issue of driving safety.
Many prescription drugs can compromise driving ability by causing drowsiness, blurred vision, confusion, tremors, or other side effects. Even herbal remedies and over-the-counter medications can affect driving ability. Talk to your pharmacist, and be sure to ask about possible drug interactions.
As you age, your joints may get stiff, and your muscles may weaken. Regular strength and flexibility exercises can help improve your reflexes and range of motion, ease pain and stiffness, and help you maintain enough strength to handle a car.
Getting enough sleep is also essential to driving well. Ensure that you’re sleeping well and talk with your doctor about the effect sleep medications may have on your driving.
Vision and hearing impairment
Good and safe driving requires good eyesight. However, deterioration in vision is an inevitable part of aging. Vision impairment rates increase significantly in people 75 and older.
One-third of those over 65 have hearing problems. Hearing loss can happen gradually, without the person realizing it, and undermine the ability to hear horns, screeching tires, sirens, and other sounds that would normally put someone on high alert. Make sure you get regular vision and hearing tests.
How can you tell it's time for someone to stop driving?
Watching for the following signs will help you realize when driving is no longer a safe activity for an older adult.
Scratches or dents on an older adult's car could indicate driving mishaps. Tickets for speeding or other violations, and an increase in car insurance rates could also be signs of risky driving. Sometimes, older adults are reluctant to drive, seem tense or exhausted after driving or complain of getting lost. This could be their own way of acknowledging that they are aware of their own limitations and are taking steps to avoid an accident. Any doubt should warrant a professional driving assessment.
Driving assessments and license renewals
Ontario's senior driver programs aim to keep seniors driving for as long as they can safely do so. Once drivers reach 80 years of age, they must renew their license every two years. It might also be a good idea to talk to your doctor about your fitness to drive.
If you have to give up driving, it won’t be easy both from a practical standpoint and an emotional one. It’s normal to feel frustrated, angry, or irritable. The inability to drive can result in increased isolation and dependency. In some cases, it means that an older adult can no longer live on their own.
It might be difficult adjusting to life without a car, but it's not impossible. Find practical ways to help make the transition to being car-less easier. Explore alternative transportation options available to seniors through senior support programs, public transport, or look for informal transportation options like car-pooling with friends and neighbours. Engage in recreational activities that don't require driving.
You may even find there are benefits to living without a car. Saving money on the cost of car ownership can pay for alternative transportation such as using a taxi or shuttle service. Walking more can improve your health. Exercise is good for your body, it can help improve your mind, mood, sleep, energy, and memory. Accepting rides from others can expand your social circle. You might just enjoy life more by living it at a slower pace without the stress of driving.
Losing your privilege to drive can be a challenging and difficult time. At in4MED, we can make this stressful time easier by connecting you to local resources and support systems, and being there for you as your trusted health advocates. As always, feel free to connect with me or leave a comment.
Healthcare Consultant, in4MED
The author of this blog post is a Physician with over 10 years of experience working in the healthcare system as a clinician, researcher and educator. She is passionate about healthcare for older adults and strives to be a resourceful inspiration to caregivers.
*No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare professional.