Driving and Aging: When is it time to hit the brakes?

By Shelby Harrell Staff Writer | Jul 30, 2014
Photo by: Shelby Harrell Ed Paquette, 78, is pictured in his 2004 Toyota in which he drives his wife, Suzanne, back and forth to Weaverville, Lake Junaluska or Swannanoa every day.

Ed Paquette, 78, of Canton drives almost 150 miles a day to visit family. It’s a task he said he doesn’t mind because it keeps Suzanne — his wife who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease — happy.

Most days, Ed helps his wife of 59 years into their 2004 Toyota Camry and drives her to visit their children who live in Lake Junaluska, Weaverville and Swannanoa.

“I drive her, and that’s always been the case,” Paquette said. “It’s the manly thing to do more than anything else.”

But Paquette, like many older adults his age, is starting to become aware of the dangers and risks involved with driving in today’s society, particularly for adults of an advanced age.

In his own experience, he recalls times when he momentarily forgets where he is going, and sometimes he will get distracted when a lot is going on in front of his vehicle.

“Highways are full now — it’s not like the 50s and 60s,” Paquette said. “It’s a challenge because there are more people on the road. The signage is different, the speed is faster — it’s harder for an elderly person to understand the signage to tell you where you’re going.”

Paquette, who grew up in Massachusetts, has been driving for 62 years. He said even though he has forgetful moments, he is confident that he doesn’t need to forego driving any time soon.

“After driving for so many years, you don’t just forget how to do it,” he said. “When I decide to stop driving, it will be because I developed health problems.”

Driving awareness

Just last week, MemoryCare held a driving and aging presentation at the Senior Resource Center. The discussion, led by Dr. Lisa Verges, drew about 40 guests, including Paquette, who learned about the warning signs of unsafe driving.

Verges explained the dangers of driving with dementia, and explored the signs that indicate when it’s time to take away the keys from someone.

“You multitask when you drive, and that’s hard to do with dementia,” Verges said. “Getting lost is common, and so is a slow reaction time, so people make poor decisions. …The problem is there is no single test to tell us whether someone should still drive or not.”

Verges said some of the most common traffic violations made by elderly drivers are failure to stop, failure to yield and other moving violations. Some other common mistakes include becoming easily distracted and confusing the gas and brake pedal.

Paquette said his biggest complaint about the elderly drivers he noticed was their slower speeds.

“I have a problem with the elderly going to slow,” he said. “They go under the speed limit on the interstate, but I go a little bit more. … As you get older, you need to figure out what’s dangerous and what’s not. If you make mistakes and make them more than once, you need to stop.”

Paquette said the presentation had made him more aware of his driving habits, and he plans to pay more attention to them as he continues drives his wife around. As of now, not driving is not an option for him.

“The class was enlightening for me,” he said “At what point in the future will I have to give up driving? As long as I feel physically and mentally able, I’ll drive.”

Letting go of the wheel

Giving up driving can be a challenge for older adults because sometimes it means giving up  independence. This is a feeling that Peggy Briggs, 83, currently struggles with after relinquishing her driving privileges three months ago. Briggs has memory loss and suffered several falls recently.

But rather than be stuck at home, Briggs is driven around town by Visiting — senior assisted living caregivers who have been hired by her husband and son. It was one of her caregivers, Peggy Morris, who drove her to the driving and aging presentation class last week.

“I didn’t think I needed a driver, but my husband and son did,” Briggs said just before the presentation began. “I had several falls and so I use a cane for walking — I feel like I could still drive but my family said no. When it is time to stop, we’ll never stop ourselves, so someone has to take it over.”

Thanks to her drivers, Briggs is still able to visit the fitness center, attend church and go shopping whenever she likes. However, after not driving a car for several months, Briggs is worried she will forget how to drive altogether.

“I’m afraid I’m losing all my skills,” Briggs said. “I’m afraid I can’t get out of my own driveway anymore.”

How to help

The thorny issue of how long elderly drivers should remain on the road or how to keep unsafe drivers off the road has no clear solution. But there are some steps people can take to help make themselves better drivers and help their loved ones let go of driving when the time is right.

Verges said elderly drivers should take precautions that will help ensure a safer driving experience. Some of the precautions include, reviewing all medications and alcohol intake, treating illnesses, exercising, taking a driver’s review course, and avoiding distractions such as cell phones, conversations and the radio.

“Milliseconds can make a difference,” Verges said during the presentation. “That can be the difference between life and death.”

Verges said it was also a good idea to review all the warning signs of unsafe driving and to ask someone to ride along and offer feedback. A driving assessment can also be done through CarePartners by calling 828-274-6179.

Verges said family members are the key people that to help an elderly driver relinquish the car keys, especially if he or she suffers from dementia. She said the best person to discuss the issue with the affected driver would be the spouse, or adult children.

As a family member, there’s a list of things people can do to help decide if an elderly loved one is still able to safely drive. These things include riding with them in the car and examining the car; take an AARP driving course review with them; consider asking another person (such as a neighbor) to run an errand; have early ongoing conversations about safe driving with a respectful approach; be a good listener and be compassionate; try again, but never discuss the issue while they are driving or at the scene of an accident.

While there’s no set age when a person should cease driving, Verges said there will come a time when each person should no longer drive.

“There’s a fairly good chance that you should stop driving before you die — the question is when?” she asked. “Life expectancy exceeds driving expectancy by nine years, but most drivers don’t ever plan for driving cessation. Don’t be that driver.”

MemoryCare is a nonprofit charitable organization that provides medical care for individuals with cognitive impairment and individualized support services for their families and caregivers. It has two locations, one in Waynesville and one in Asheville.

For more information, visit www.memorycare.org.