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Helping an Older Loved One Cope with Hanging up the Keys

The debate about when senior drivers should hand over their keys has being going on for decades. It’s widely understood that as we age, our driving abilities become a bit less “sharp.” Vision and hearing problems are often among the first issues to present themselves. Many seniors self-regulate by not driving at night, or wearing hearing-aids. Getting old doesn’t have to translate to bad driving. Every person is different; some may have difficulty driving safely at 65 while others are doing just fine at 90. One thing is for certain, however. Hanging up the car keys for good often comes with an overwhelming sense of personal freedom loss. For this reason, seniors are often hesitant to heed the advice of loved ones when the time comes. Contact a Boston Motor Vehicle Accident Lawyer Today.

As the American population ages, the debate of safety vs. freedom continues to grow. Age is, indeed, just a number. Stereotyping seniors as bad drivers can do more harm than good. There is no magic age at which driving is no longer safe. According to the University of Massachusetts in Boston, about 75% of American seniors over the age of 80 are still driving. In Massachusetts, seniors account for approximately 20% of auto accidents that result in hospitalization.

Over 75? Massachusetts Requires In-Person License Renewal

Massachusetts has been increasing efforts to address this highly-sensitive safety issue. Legislation passed in 2010 requires MA drivers over the age of 75 to show up in person and pass a vision test in order to renew their license. In addition, several area senior centers are helping to monitor the problem. Amy Beck, assistant director at the Hopkinton Senior Center, said the center keeps an eye on residents who are still driving, and offers multiple safe driving programs. ‘‘One of the scary things for them is they feel like they can’t do anything after hanging up the keys. There are options,’’ Beck said. ‘‘We want to make sure they are aware of them before they get to that point.’’ If staff notices problems with a resident’s driving, the center reaches out to that person or, if necessary, their family.

Several high-profile cases over the last year in Massachusetts have reignited the debate about how and when to address driving safety with seniors.

  • In November, an 80-year-old woman crashed into several pedestrians in the parking lot of Natick’s Cloverleaf Mall, killing a 73-year-old man and injuring two others.
  • Only weeks earlier, a 78-year-old Framingham man crashed into eight people while driving an SUV for the Adesa car auction house. One man suffered serious injuries after being dragged beneath the SUV before the vehicle slammed into a wall.

Although many older drivers are still very capable of driving safely, some may be so concerned about losing their independence that they deny it when problems arise. Janet Jankowiak, a retired geriatric neurologist and member of the Massachusetts Medical Society’s committee on geriatric medicine, said families can evaluate an older loved one’s driving abilities by considering the following factors; vision, memory loss, minor accidents, and getting lost in familiar areas. ‘‘They overestimate their abilities,’’ she said. ‘‘In this society we are so dependent on our cars. It is our ego. It is our independence.’’

Health, Not Age, is What Matters

The bottom line is that seniors can be excellent drivers. Many are capable of driving safely into their late-80s and 90s. However, age-related conditions, illnesses, and medications can make even the safest driver a risk to himself and everyone else on the road. If a loved one is exhibiting signs of memory loss, lack of coordination, vision or hearing problems, or cognitive issues, it may be time to talk to them about avoiding driving at night, only driving with a capable passenger, or hanging up the keys altogether.

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