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Should You Be Worried About Your Parent Driving A Car?

At age 78, Sheila thinks she's a good driver, and she would like to stay that way. But lately, she has been in minor accidents. Sheila wonders how she can stay safe behind the wheel. Will taking a class for older drivers help?

You may have asked yourself this question about your aging parent. Getting older doesn't make your senior parent a bad driver. But there are changes that may affect driving skills over time.

The Elderly Body

As we age, the joints get stiff, and muscles may weaken. This can make it harder for an elderly person to turn their head to look back, turn the steering wheel quickly, or brake safely.

What a senior can do:

  • See their doctor if you think that arthritis or stiffness gets in the way of your driving. 
  • If possible, drive a car with automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, and large mirrors. 
  • Be physically active or exercise to keep and even improve your strength and flexibility.

Vision

Eyesight often changes as we get older. At night, seniors may have trouble seeing things clearly. Glare can also be a problem—from oncoming headlights, street lights, or the sun. It might be harder to see people, things, and movements outside the direct line of sight. It may take longer to read street or traffic signs or even recognize familiar places. Eye diseases, such as glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration, as well as some medicines, may also change a person's vision.

What a senior can do: 

  • Have your vision checked every 2 to 4 years if you are age 40 to 64 and every 1 to 2 years if you are 65 or older, as recommended by the American Academy of Ophthalmology. There are many vision problems your doctor can treat. 
  • Talk to your eye doctor if you can't see well enough to drive because you have a cataract. You might need surgery to remove the cataract
  • If you need glasses to see far away while driving, make sure your prescription is correct. And always wear them when you are driving. 
  • Cut back on night driving if you are having trouble seeing in the dark.

Hearing

Hearing may also change, making it harder to notice horns, sirens, or noises from a senior's own car. That can be a problem because these sounds warn seniors when they may need to pull over or get out of the way.

What seniors can do:

  • Have your hearing checked. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends doing this every 3 years after age 50. Your doctor can treat some hearing problems. 
  • Get a hearing aid to help—don't forget to use it when you drive. 
  • Try to keep the inside of the car as quiet as possible while driving. 
  • Pay attention to the warning lights on the dashboard. They may let you know when something is wrong with your car.

Reaction Time

In order to drive safely, seniors should be able to react quickly to other cars and people on the road. They need to be able to make decisions and to remember what to do. Being able to make quick decisions while driving is important, to avoid accidents and stay safe. Changes over time might slow how fast a senior reacts. Their reflexes may be getting slower. Stiff joints or weak muscles can make it harder move quickly. Their attention span may be shorter. Or, it might be harder for them to do two things at the same time.

What seniors can do:

  • Leave more space between you and the car in front of you. 
  • Start braking early when you need to stop. 
  • Avoid high traffic areas when you can. 
  • If you must drive on a fast-moving highway, drive in the right-hand lane. Traffic moves more slowly there. This might give you more time to make safe driving decisions. 
  • Take a defensive driving course. AARP, American Automobile Association (AAA, known as Triple AAA), or your car insurance company can help you find a class near you. 
  • Be aware of how your body and mind might be changing, and talk to your doctor about any concerns.

Senior Health

Some health problems can make it harder for people of any age to drive safely. But other conditions that are more common as you get older can also make driving difficult. For example, Parkinson's disease, stroke, and arthritis can interfere with driving abilities. At some point, someone with health problems may feel that he or she is no longer a good driver and may decide to stop driving.

People with illnesses like dementia and Alzheimer's disease may forget how to drive safely. They also may forget how to find a familiar place like the grocery store or even home. In the early stages of Alzheimer's, some people are able to keep driving safely for a while. But, as memory and decision-making skills worsen, driving will be affected. If you have dementia, you might not be able to tell that you are having driving problems. Family and friends may give you feedback about your driving. Doctors can help you decide whether it's safe to keep driving.

What seniors can do:

  • Tell a family member or your doctor if you become confused while driving.

Medications

Does your aging parent take any medicines that make them feel drowsy, lightheaded, or less alert than usual? Medications can have side effects. People tend to take more medicines as they age, so pay attention to how these drugs may affect your parent's driving.

What seniors can do:

  • Read the medicine labels carefully, and pay attention to any warnings. 
  • Make a list of all your medicines, and talk to a doctor or pharmacist about how they may affect your driving. 
  • Don't drive if you feel lightheaded or drowsy.
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