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Medical Conditions that can put the Brakes on a Senior's Driving Days (Canada)

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April 28, 2016

North American drivers, age 70 and older, are still very active on the road, with nearly two-thirds (63%) of surveyed seniors driving three to five days a week, and more than half (56%) of surveyed seniors averaging more than 25 miles per week, according to research conducted by Home Instead, Inc., franchisor of the Home Instead Senior Care® network.

When it comes to driving, there are a number of strategies that can help keep older adults safer on the road. In fact, many seniors can continue to drive safely into their later senior years. It’s not until certain medical problems come down the pike that seniors may need to give up the car keys.

“Age, including into the higher 80s, has nothing to do with the capacity to drive,” said Elin Schold Davis, Project Coordinator, Older Driver Initiative, American Occupational Therapy Association. “It does have to do with changes in vision, physical skills such as the ability to reach, turn and work the pedals, and cognitive capabilities such as recalling the rules of the road, making decisions and navigating.”

Whether a senior can continue driving or not may come down to the amount of time it takes to make important decisions on the road. “Driving is the one IADL (Instrumental Activity of Daily Living) that cannot be modified beyond a certain point,” Schold Davis said. “There is a time component. For example, a senior with declining physical abilities can take all day to get dressed. They can modify the process and take the time needed to get it done. But you can’t take all day to make a left-hand turn when driving.”

According to experts, the most important abilities for drivers are:

  • Vision,

  • Physical abilities, including reaching, turning and working the pedals, and

  • Cognitive abilities, including understanding the rules of the road, making decisions and navigating.

BrightFocus Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping individuals save their mind and sight by supporting research to end Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration and glaucoma, highlights the following issues that could put older adults in particular jeopardy on the road:

Alzheimer’s Disease

Over time, people with Alzheimer’s disease will likely begin to lose faculties vital for driving, including reflexes, coordination, reaction time, eyesight, hearing, judgment, and the ability to orient themselves.

Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a common eye disease that causes deterioration of the macula, the tissue located in the central part of the retina.

AMD causes blurriness and blind spots in the middle of a person’s field of vision. This results in dependence on peripheral vision, seeing things out of the corner of the eye while looking straight ahead. Peripheral vision often lacks sharpness and clarity, and is not sufficient for driving.

Glaucoma

In contrast to AMD, the various forms of glaucoma are more likely to initially cause problems with peripheral vision. Drivers with peripheral vision loss may have trouble noticing traffic signs on the side of the road or seeing cars and pedestrians about to cross their path. As glaucoma progresses, central vision also becomes impaired.

Medication Usage

Medication usage typically increases in older adults, which may increase the chances of medications affecting their driving. Many drugs have adverse side effects, such as drowsiness, dizziness, hazy vision, unsteadiness, fainting and slowed reaction time. Common medications that may cause side effects include sleep aids, antidepressants, antihistamines for allergies and colds and strong painkillers.

Also, taking several different drugs together may create serious side effects. Many commonly prescribed drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease also have side effects. Consult with a physician before the start of any drug treatment regimen to determine how it may affect your senior loved one’s driving ability.

Having a particular medical condition does not necessarily mean a loved one will have to stop driving. However, it’s very important that you pay close attention to how well your loved one drives. If you or someone you know is concerned about a senior’s driving, talk to a doctor and consider recommending a driving test or evaluation. Also, check out the Safe Driving Planner for help and resources.

For more information about how medications can affect a senior, visit the “Let’s Talk About Rx℠” resources here on CaregiverStress.com®.

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