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Driving Dilemma: Program Helps Older Drivers Stay Safely On The Road

By Inside Columbia
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Keep Your Keys, an MU Health Care program, can make getting around easier and safer for older adults. Designed to help seniors stay on the road as long as safely possible, the program even tackles one of the toughest decisions every driver must ask: when to retire from driving.

One thing is certain. Older drivers may buy a stylish new car, but they still have a body that is getting older and more cantankerous each year. “As we age, there’s a decrease in strength and flexibility,” says Beth Koster, outreach coordinator for MU Health Care. “It takes people a little bit longer to react and respond to situations happening on the roadway. As well, there’s always a change in vision, which can impact driving during the day or night. And sometimes, we see cognitive abilities diminish, especially in people who are dealing with Alzheimer’s or dementia.”

Just because a person has slowed down doesn’t mean they can’t drive safely. “A 96-year-old who is a capable driver has no need to give up that license,” Koster says. Older drivers can compensate for their physical changes by driving at times of the day when traffic is light or sticking to familiar routes and avoiding inclement weather.

Koster encourages everyone to make a transportation plan, which includes options for getting around if driving becomes impossible or unadvisable. Even young people need alternatives in case they break a leg or temporarily become too ill to drive themselves. The plan might list family members who have agreed to help with chores or include a list of local transportation services. The idea is to ensure that retiring from driving doesn’t lead to isolation or depression. “We want to keep them active, going shopping, going to church and their senior center. The plan should be written down and assessed frequently,” Koster says.

One problem that older drivers face is that their bodies usually change gradually, so gradually that they may not be aware of their limitations. Koster tells of one woman who was driving with her grown son and while at a stoplight asked him when they had added the second set of lights. “Mom,” said the son, “there’s one set of lights. You’re seeing double.” A trip to the optometrist followed.

Older adults are more prone to relying on medications to treat various ailments, and these can cause side effects that make driving unsafe. Dizziness, drowsiness and vision distortion can turn even the most careful drivers into accident-prone ones. “Everybody that comes to our program gets a medication file of life that they can keep in their vehicles at all times. People involved in an accident might be knocked unconscious or may not remember what medications they take,” Koster says.

The program also stresses the importance of defensive driving. While it’s true that senior drivers have better judgment and more experience than younger drivers, overconfidence isn’t protection against other people’s unsafe driving. “We want older people to understand that if they are in the same crash as a young person, the young adult will bounce back and heal a lot faster than someone of an advanced age. Older adults need to realize that their bodies are more fragile, and they have to share the road with everyone. You can be a great driver and not be at fault but still be seriously injured.”

The next Keep Your Keys program will be presented Feb. 13 at the Columbia Senior Center. For more information or to arrange a presentation for your group, contact Beth Koster at kosterb@health. missouri.edu.

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