The key to keeping senior drivers safe on the road may be as simple as encouraging them to make more frequent trips to the gym, says a new study.
Good, old-fashioned physical activity, already lauded for bestowing a host of mind and body benefits, can also help aging adults maintain their driving independence, according to researchers from MIT's AgeLab and The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence.
"We know that exercise is valuable as we age," says Joseph Coughlin, Ph.D., director of the MIT AgeLab in a press release, "but we were interested in looking at connections to specific driving issues associated with aging."
How age can affect driving ability
These common age-related driving issues can include:
Vision problems—glaucoma, macular degeneration and cataracts are just a few of the eye disorders that can damage an aging individual's vision and make it more difficult for them to see while driving, especially in the dark.
Hearing impairment—older ears may have a harder time hearing horns and sirens.
Reaction time—the years can take a toll on a person's reflexes, making them slower to react to unexpected driving hazards, such as someone cutting off their vehicle.
Mobility issues—stiff joints and muscles may make it harder for an individual to turn their head in order to check their mirrors and blind spots. In a survey conducted by the study authors, adults aged 50 and older reported having trouble performing certain driving activities, including: looking over their shoulder while backing up (41%) and getting in and out of their vehicle (22%).
Exercise can help elderly drivers maintain mobility
Not much can be done to turn back the clock on vision or hearing problems, but Coughlin and his team found that certain exercises can help senior motorists move better and faster while behind the wheel.
For eight to ten weeks, a group of drivers aged 60-74 years old were given a fitness program that included exercises designed to improve coordination, strength, flexibility and range of motion. All of the exercises could be done at home, with minimal equipment, such as a resistance band, and included movements such as soccer kicks, bicep curls, and heel drops. The drivers were instructed to follow the program for 15-20 minutes every day.
Those who adhered to the workout plan were able to move more freely and performed better on driving skills assessments than they had at the beginning of the study.
It's true that even the most rigorous workout regimen won't erase all of the negative effects of aging, but Coughlin believes his group's findings can help older drivers safely maintain their independence and mobility.
"Driving can be essential to older adults' sense of independence and autonomy," he says. "We encourage drivers to consider exercise as one way to stay safe on the road over a lifetime."
To help caregivers and seniors come up with the right exercise plan, Coughlin suggests consulting with a doctor to see which movements would be ideal given an elder's particular needs and abilities.
Giving up the keys can lead to conflict
Of course, no amount of exercise can prevent the inevitable: the day will come when it's clear that your aging loved one should no longer be driving. When this time comes, it can be near-impossible to convince them to give up the car keys.
Here are a few common questions on this issue, posted on the AgingCare.com community forum:
The challenge is that every situation is unique. As with all things caregiving-related, there's no one right answer to such inquiries.
All you can do is remain on the lookout for signs an elderly loved one is becoming an unsafe driver. Once these indicators start cropping up, it's time to sit down and have a frank conversation with them (and possibly their doctor as well) about your concerns.
It's almost a guarantee that you will encounter some resistance during this discussion. Relax and try to see things from your loved one's point of view. But, don't hesitate to be firm, after all, not only is your loved one's safety at stake, but the safety of their fellow motorists as well.
As long-time caregiver and AgingCare expert, Carol Bradley Bursack, puts it, "Some people, because they have done everything else and still can't get an elder to quit driving, have gone so far as to disable cars. It can get ugly."