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Parkland providers offer advice for handling elderly drivers

Special to The Dallas Examiner | 12/20/2013, 1:38 p.m.
The Dallas Mix Master Photo by Robyn H. Jimenez

Special to The Dallas Examiner

Older adults are among the most responsible drivers on the road. They avoid drinking and driving, wear seatbelts, obey speed limits and aren’t distracted by texting, eating or taking their eyes off the road. Yet, according to the USAA Educational Foundation, older adults are more likely to be injured or killed in a motor vehicle crash.

As one ages, there are a number of physical changes that take place as well. Weakening vision may mean it’s difficult to recover from glare and may cause temporary blind spots. Senior adults may need more light to see clearly, as pupil reaction time slows and the eye lens thickens. This could lead to trouble seeing clearly at night and difficulty seeing low-contrast objects, such as pavement markings.

In addition, as the body ages, so too does hearing acuity, strength and flexibility in arms, legs, hips and shoulders, as well as mobility in the neck and back – all of which can lead to difficulty in driving and/or controlling the vehicle.

During Older Driver Safety Awareness Week, Dec. 2 through Dec. 6, members of Parkland Health and Hospital System’s Geriatrics department urged people to have discussions with older family members and friends about age and safety behind the wheel.

“Often it’s the family members who come to us because they’re concerned about their loved one who is insisting that there is no reason they should stop driving,” said Jane Ann McGee, a licensed clinical social worker in Parkland’s Geriatrics department. “It can be an unpleasant conversation for both sides – one that usually gets put off way too long.”

Jane Hunley, Parkland’s director of Geriatrics, said, “Often, drivers will recognize their limitations. With increased traffic and congestion, many older drivers will avoid freeways, opting to take less traveled neighborhood streets. And as their eyesight worsens, many forego driving at night but simply offer family members an excuse as to why they’re staying in.”

Despite potential hazards, Hunley cautions against just taking away the keys without planning ahead regarding the emotional and practical implications.

“Once you take away someone’s keys, you’re taking away their independence. Make sure there are alternative transportation plans in place,” Hunley said. “If you can, get rid of the car because there are instances where people forget they’re not supposed to drive. If you can’t get rid of the car, at least disable it so it can’t be driven.”

And don’t think you’re in this alone. Talk to your loved one’s medical provider and explain your concerns, McGee advised. “They can help you have the conversation.”

Once the older relative is no longer driving, there is an adjustment period as they learn to let go control of the wheel.

“One adaptation you’ll hear of older people making is ‘driving by committee,’” McGee said. “Usually what happens is the person in the passenger seat will act as the navigator and give directions as to where to go, where to turn or where to park. It’s fairly common among older drivers.”

Caregivers and patients age 65 and older can receive additional information at the Parkland Geriatrics Center. Primary care is also offered at the following Parkland community clinics: Bluitt-Flowers, deHaro-Saldivar, Garland, East Dallas and Southeast Dallas health centers. To make an appointment at the Parkland Geriatrics Center, please call 214-590-2869 or visit http://www.parklandhospital.com/medical_services/outpatient/geriatrics.html.