Octo Observations: Elderly Drivers – A Thorny but Timely Topic

When teenagers obtain drivers licenses, most parents sit on pins and needles. Even with good driver’s education programs, and required state examinations, parents worry their children might be involved in an accident. They cringe at the thought of kids driving on a busy interstate or in hectic city traffic. So normal. I sure did my share of fussing and worrying. However, given time and experience, most parents gradually “let go.” I remember being terrified the first time our oldest drove all three of her siblings in the car. I was a wreck, she did fine, and I recovered.

Now, roles are reversed. As we parents grow significantly older, our decidedly adult kids fret about how much longer we should be behind the wheel. The kids are right. Too often elderly folks continue to drive long after their cognitive and motor reactions are sharp. By nature, the elderly cling passionately to their independence and resent any suggestions, especially from their offspring, about surrendering car keys. It is a “THORNY” topic, and one that has come front and center to me and my husband. 

We remember clearly when John’s mom moved to a Virginia assisted living facility. She was in her eighties, feisty and determined to do exactly as she wanted. Before leaving her adored Cleveland home, she would not sell her car. Instead she surreptiously hired a person to drive it to Virginia. She knew she must have a valid state driver’s license, so she found a “coach” to help her drive around her new area. It took time before my husband or his brother realized what she was doing. The dear lady could hardly see above the steering wheel, and thankfully was unable to pass her driver’s test. As it was, she never agreed to give up her car keys gracefully. Not fun and certainly not easy for any family member.

My own mother renewed her driver’s license until she died at age 94. She was not required to take an Ohio driver’s test. Instead, she filled out a form, mailed a check and received her license. She kept her car, and when she died, my sister and I gave her ten year-old Buick, with less than 3500 miles on it, to a close family member.  My mother may not have driven the last two years of her life, but she was proud to have her driver’s license, and her car ready to roar in her garage.

THANKFULLY……..

Laws have changed significantly since my mom died in Ohio and my mother-in-law came to Virginia over twenty years ago. Virginia state laws pertaining to the elderly have changed radically. They are much more stringent. GOOD. Now, anyone age 75 and over must appear at the DMV in person and  take a vision test before being issued a new license. My husband did this 18 months ago before his birthday expiration date. My turn is coming.

Look around you: there are many old people who are still driving who absolutely should not. Statistics are clear. We have learned about State Certified Driver Evaluation Consultants. Throughout the USA there are only 292 approved testers. We recently met one gentleman who services northern Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and most all of southwestern Virginia. His credentials are impressive. He took intensive training to qualify for his role.  He has periodic refresher courses to keep him appraised of new state laws.  He told us that besides giving clients a two-hour cognitive, mobility and road evaluation, he must recommend marginal candidates for further scrutiny. More testing by DMV officials. Their results, along with licensed driver evaluator’s results, plus documented material supplied by person’s medical doctor, define the DMV’s final determination as to a person’s competency.  Cheers to the DMV for its diligence and efforts to keep elderly people from inflicting harm on themselves or others. This is a Virginia state law. 

Also, in Virginia, some folks are granted “restricted licenses,” which means they may drive during daylight hours, on designated roads and in specific areas. Yet, they may not be permitted to drive on interstates or at night. Smart move. In addition, that person must be retested every six months at the DMV….another smart move.

How many of us realize this? How many of us think long and hard about enabling our elderly loved ones who still drive? How many of us realize that if a person with any known cognitively impaired condition, such as a stroke or dementia, is involved in a serious accident, auto insurance becomes invalid? How many of us know that as a shattering result, a person can be sued to the max by a victim and subsequently lose all acquired assets? This sounds extreme, but it is definitely true. A sobering fact.

Each state has its own approved driver laws. Some states do not require retesting of elderly drivers. Others do. Some states require a person to take a vision test, and renew his license in person. This varies in large degree state by state. SO, give yourself a gift and learn all you can. Go online state by state to look at driving rules for older people. Double check to be sure all printed material is up to date. Familiarize yourself with the laws of your state or call your local DMV. If you are an older adult who is willing to face the truth, do your own research. If you are an offspring who is concerned about whether or not your mom or dad should be driving, check out all the facts. They are easy to find. 

As an example of how state laws vary, consider this true story. As a  Connecticut resident, our daughter-in-law’s wonderful stepfather, whom everyone adored, was unfortunately affected by moderate dementia. He loved to drive and was accustomed to being in charge of himself.  At the request of his family, he reluctantly took a test. Because Connecticut had no “safety rules in place for older drivers,” he passed the test, and continued to drive until his family said, “No more.” Never an easy position for any loved ones….and for that, the state of Virginia with its strict laws for people with any known medical or cognitive condition, is to be celebrated. I am glad that we live where we do: still alive in an era of acceptable awareness that no matter how we try to fool ourselves, we are “young no more!” We must not bury our heads in the sand.

As affirmation of being pro-active, you may be interested to know that AAA recommends families have early discussions with older members and prepare for the future when their loved ones should stop driving. By talking and planning ahead, this takes the emotion out of any eventuality. Determine how “mom will get around, once she can no longer drive.” Make plans, seek solutions or at least investigate options when life is calm and older parents feel included. Uber service is possible, and there are often qualified folks who want to earn extra money and are eager to drive part time. Happily, many options are available to all of us. Remember the movie, Driving Miss Daisy? Ponder the resulting friendship between that darling older lady and her driver. Delicious!

The number of cars on the highways today is incalculable. The number of accidents caused by physically or cognitively impaired older people has risen. Too true. Many more of us are old. More of us live far longer than our grandparents did, and more of us have cars which we dearly love. My ultimate dream is to have a jazzy sports’ convertible before I am too old to drive or enjoy it. Dream on, Joyful!

So when our adult children say, “Mom or dad, it is time to think about taking your car keys,” try not to be angry, hurt or defensive. Remember our kids feel as we once did. They fuss because they love us. Be realistic rather than reactive. Think. “Do you have arthritis or any crippling inflammation of your joints? Do you have trouble twisting or flexing or turning to see on-coming traffic or finding a parking place?” If you do, think about how our normal aging affects reflexes and memory. Think about how you would feel if you did not see that preoccupied pedestrian walking behind your car. What if your actions hurt that person? What if that person was killed? Think about SAFETY FIRST. For sure, “Thorny” topics aren’t much fun, but YES, indeed, “an ounce of prevention” truly makes sense! Be wise, be wonderful. Be informed!

Joy Nevin is the author of Joy of Retirement – Live, Love, and Learn. Click to buy on Amazon.

Top photo: Bigstock