Aging and driving: Knowing when to turn over the keys

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Driving represents freedom and control. You can go where you want, when you want.

But as we get older, physical and mental changes can affect our ability behind the wheel.

And while age is not the sole predictor of safety, experts say age-related declines can signal an increased risk of crashing.

Buffalo resident Evelyn Berman, 86, is still in the driver’s seat. But she noticed some difficulty driving at night.

“Difficulty seeing like street signs when I come around a corner, house numbers,” Berman explained. “My response time was good. My driving skills were good.”

Berman needed to know for sure. She decided to get a thorough driver evaluation a few months ago at the Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo.

“I was very capable during the day. I found that I wasn’t quite as capable at night.”

The hospital has a program that evaluates a person’s motor, cognitive and visual skills. Individuals can be referred by a court, a physician or themselves.

“Our job is to keep people on the road,” said Lisa Thorpe, who’s in charge of outpatient rehab. “And if there’s a small little modification we can do to the vehicle or their driving strategy we’ll do that first.

Thorpe says it’s been demonstrated in studies that more frequent road testing does not decrease fatalities in seniors.

“Age is not a good predictor of driving performance.”

At 80 years old, Ginger Spencer voluntarily gave up her vehicle in November.

“I thought it was time. There are too many crazies on the road.”

Spencer says she’s a good driver with a clean record and no accidents. She says the decision wasn’t easy.

“I am still adjusting,” said Spencer, who lives in Buffalo. “And I had to think this out after my adjustment period began. What do I really miss?”

She says the decision was partly based on economics; she’s saving about $700 a month without a vehicle.

Another factor in her decision to stop driving was last year’s brutal winter.

“It’s not easy, mentally. It got to be such a mental thing,” she said. “You have to be ready for it. You have to be realistic about it.”

For most people driving represents independence and control.

Statistics show that most older adults are safe drivers because they limit when, how far and where they drive.

“Age is not for me as much the factor. It’s how you aged,” said Dr. Ken Garbarino, a geriatric specialist at DeGraff Memorial Hospital in North Tonawanda. “We all age differently.”

Garbarino sees a lot of older individuals still driving within their means.

“I’m amazed at how well a lot of people can sort of self-restrict. They’re not going out in bad weather. They’re avoiding the twilight kind of time when vision’s not as easy to see,” he said.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, fatalities in crashes  involving older drivers declined by 13 percent from 2003-2012.

Researchers point to a number of factors  including better health of older adults, safer cars and safer roads.

Evelyn Berman was looking for answers. She knew nighttime driving was an issue, but needed confirmation.

That’s why she decided a driver evaluation at ECMC would be best.

“Everything was good except when they put me up to the machine that measures your night vision. I failed miserably. And so I was right.”

While she admits that it’s been a bit of an adjustment, Berman limits herself to daytime driving.

“I get to a point where I feel beholden to others to pick me up and take me, and to leave something early enough that I’m not driving in the dark.”

ECMC’s Lisa Thorpe believes most people know their limitations. She says the hospital’s driver evaluation program will often confirm what they already know.

“Just because you have a deficit does not mean you cannot drive. So what we’re doing is we’re balancing the scale,” Thorpe said. “ If you can keep that scale balanced and continue to compensate, congratulations. Stay on the road and continue to drive.”

Signs there could be a problem

How do you know when it’s time to give up driving?

The National Institute on Aging suggests asking yourself the following questions:

• Do other drivers often honk at me?

• Have I had some accidents?

• Do I get lost? Even on roads I know?

• Do I have trouble staying in my lane?

• Do cars or pedestrians seem to appear out of nowhere?

• Do I have trouble moving my foot between the gas and brake pedals?

• Have I been pulled over by the police because of my driving?

“Very few people give it up easily,” said Sarah Harlock, who’s with the Alzheimer’s Disease Assistance Center of WNY.

Harlock says a dementia diagnosis itself doesn’t mean a person should not be driving.

“What it means is that they do need to be monitored more closely. That eventually they will need to stop driving. They will become unsafe,” she said. “But at that particular moment they may still be a safe driver.”

What if someone is found to be a danger on the road and driving is no longer an option? Who should deliver the bad news?

Geriatric care manager Toby Laping believes conveying that message is best left to a physician or another professional — not a family member.

“Even with somebody with advanced dementia. Advanced forgetfulness of recent events. If there’s an emotional investment in the issue it’s remembered longer,” said Laping. “And so frequently if family members say to a patient you should not be driving. That patient will remember who said that and will either not forgive them or will remember that they did something nasty for a very long time.”

Age-related declines involving physical and mental abilities are a given. They can happen in a different way and at a different time for all of us.

Just look at Evelyn Berman who at the age of 86 remains in the driver’s seat despite nighttime driving limitations.

“Everybody has different abilities, and to put an age line on it I don’t think that’s the thing to do,” she said. “I’ve been with some drivers who are in their 50s and I wouldn’t ride with them again.”

These days people depend on driving or other forms of transportation to go to the grocery store, bank or doctor’s office.

Dr. Ken Garbarino says tied into that emotion is the need to drive.

“I think one of the biggest losses that we see from someone who’s been driving for maybe 60 years or 65 years is that driver’s license,” he said. “It’s like the last thing they want to hold onto of independence.”

The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles has a driver re-evaluation program in place that determines whether a person is qualified to drive.

Requests for a driver re-evaluation can be sent to DMV by a police agency, a physician or a concerned individual, the DMV website states. “DMV will not remove driving privileges based on age or based on any standard except driving ability.”

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