Senior Road Trip – Or Better Not? Helping Them Maintain Independence

Hitting the open road at the wheel of a car has been a symbol of independence for generations of Americans.

Unfortunately, no longer being able to hit the road is often seen as losing that independence — and many of our senior loved ones may be clinging to their last piece of freedom.

Family caregivers worry over the question “are they still safe behind the wheel”?

Sometimes it is quite clear that they are no longer safe — to themselves, their passengers or others on the road. Their reaction time may be impaired, their ability to remember where they are going or how to get home, or their mobility may be impaired to the point where they can no longer turn the wheel or find the wipers or other controls.

For many others, however, they just need a few interventions to allow them to continue driving for a little more time and maintain their independence and ability to age in place as desired.

Obstacles to Safe Driving & How to Overcome Them

  • Do they physically fit in their car in order to be in control of it?
    • Can they see over the steering wheel? We all have these images of an elderly person low behind the wheel unable to see the traffic light. We cringe at the thought of these seniors on the road, worried that they might not be able to see the road – or us on it.
    • We should be looking at the car that our seniors are driving to see if they fit in the seat correctly and comfortably enough to operate the vehicle safely.
    • Do they need the seat adjusted, the steering wheel tilted, the mirrors adjusted or an appropriate cushion?
    • Is the seat height appropriate so that they can see ten feet in front of their car? We may need to adjust things for them to ensure their safety.
    • Would adaptations to their current vehicle make the car easier and safer to drive, such as pedal extenders, hand controls or knobs on the steering wheel?
  • Is their vehicle the best choice to meet their needs?
    • Would they be able to drive better and more safely with a different type of vehicle? There are many innovative features in safety and comfort in various newer models that might benefit your senior.
    • Is their car well maintained–are the tires in road ready condition, do the windshield wipers work and wiper fluid full, has the oil been changed lately, do the brakes hold firmly and routine maintenance performed to avoid car trouble that could lead to accidents?
  • Can they see well enough to drive? If not, making whatever corrections are necessary to improve their vision can help them stay safe on the road.
    • Has their vision been checked in the past one to two years? Are they wearing the correct eyeglass prescription? Are their glasses clean?
    • Are the windshield and headlights clean — the mirrors too?
    • Do they wear anti-glare sunglasses while driving?
    • Do they drive in the dark or in low light levels or unsafe conditions such as rain or snow?
    • Do they have cataracts or diminished peripheral vision that may make it difficult to see anything clearly, whether it be road signs, pedestrians, the odometer, the gas gauge, the lines on the road or other important keys to safe driving?
  • Do they have hearing loss which could make it difficult to recognize trouble, such as emergency vehicles, train whistles, sirens, horns or instructions from passengers? Those who have been deaf or hard of hearing most or all of their lives typically have no issues with driving but those accustomed to relying on sound may have issues when that is lost. Can assistive listening devices such as hearing aids or other steps help them?
  • Are they taking medications that might impair their driving and reaction time? Do their medications cause drowsiness, dizziness or even nausea which could make them distracted? You may want to have your pharmacist review the medications and timing of any that might impair their abilities. Perhaps there can be modifications in the medication schedule to allow driving during the day without impairment. Maybe, however, at least a  temporary curtailment of driving is the wise course.
  • Are they able to judge distance? If they have an impairment at this task it could lead to failure to yield the right of way or stop at stop signs, accidents involving pedestrians, or inability to read road signs in time to make lane changes. They may not realize that they are not staying in their own lane or whether they are driving the correct speed.
  • Do they have a medical condition that could impair their driving skills, such as Parkinson’s disease tremors or arthritis, that limits their movement and range of motion? If so, ask the doctor if driving is still safe.
  • Would they benefit from a defensive driving course or other training to get refreshers and tips for safer driving and modifications they can make to increase the time they are safe to drive?
    • Are they staying physically active while not driving that will help them perform better behind the wheel?
    • Would they complete a road test so that you know for sure their level of ability?
    • Would it be beneficial to work with a driver rehabilitation specialist who can help improve skills with training?

Family Caregiver Attention May Help

None of us who drive want to be forced to seek alternate means of transportation to get to doctor appointments, beauty shop, grocery store or church. Family caregivers do not want to be the one to put on the brakes for seniors’ driving.

If caregivers take a little time to observe and make any necessary changes such as we discussed above, our seniors may be able to stay on the road a little longer and be safer when they drive. We don’t want them to become a statistic or carry the burden of hurting others on the road.

We would love to hear your experiences with your senior loved one and driving strategies! What have you done when their ability to hit the road — and their independence — was threatened?