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Ask Joan: Older Drivers Column

Joan Hatem-Roy, Chief Executive Officer

Question: 

I have been driving for more than 50 years, but recently noticed that my parallel parking skills are not what they used to be. I also tend to avoid driving at night, especially in the rain, because the reflections in the puddles on the road distract me. Should I consider giving up my car?

Answer:  

Massachusetts law doesn’t ask drivers to surrender their licenses at a designated age but requires those 75 or older to renew their licenses in person. The Registry of Motor Vehicles has dedicated Wednesdays at certain RMV Service Centers to anyone 65 years of age or older to renew with an appointment.

The state relies on drivers to monitor their own abilities and decide whether they can safely operate a vehicle. 

As we age, changes in our health may affect our ability to drive. According to the National Institute on Aging, here are four conditions that can impact your effectiveness behind the wheel, as well as advice about how you can address them.

Stiff joints and muscles

Many of us become less limber and flexible as we grow older. Our joints can stiffen, and our muscles lose strength. Arthritis may slow our ability to quickly look behind us, steer the car, or brake in reaction to sudden events in traffic. You should consult a physician if any of these symptoms cause problems with your driving. If you can, drive a car with plenty of “built-in” assistance—automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, and large mirrors. If you are experiencing trouble with your legs, consider obtaining hand controls for both the brake and gas pedals.

Vision problems

Our eyesight can decline as we age. Our peripheral vision may weaken, and we may have trouble seeing out of the corner of our eye. Some people’s vision blurs due to cataracts or because of diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration. Anyone age 65 or older should visit their eye doctor every year for a thorough eye exam. If you wear glasses or contact lenses to drive, be sure your prescription is up-to-date and never drive without these if you need them.

Some older people avoid driving at night, especially in the rain or other bad weather. These conditions reduce visibility and play tricks with perspective, even for those without vision issues. You are far from alone in being troubled by night driving.

Loss of hearing

Older people may lose the ability to distinguish sounds, especially in noisy settings. This can make it harder to notice horns, sirens, or even sounds coming for their own cars. You should have your hearing checked every three years once you turn 50. Mention any concerns to your doctor. While you are driving, do not distract yourself by playing the radio, especially when approaching a busy intersection or rotary. Instead, concentrate on the task at hand.

Medications

Some medications come with warnings on their containers about possible side effects, including those that can cause users to become drowsy, less alert, or lightheaded. You should not drive after taking your prescribed dosage in this case.

Always read labels on prescriptions—and over-the-counter medications—and ask your pharmacist how these might impact your driving. Never drive if you feel lightheaded or drowsy.

Your ability to drive safely affects you—and everyone else on the road. Perhaps you should avoid night driving and parallel parking. And, before making any decision about continuing to drive your car, speak with your physician. Best of luck!

Are you struggling to care for an older adult or having difficulty locating resources? Our experienced staff is available to help. Visit us online at www.ESMV.org for more information. You can also call us at 1-800-892-0890 or email ageinfo@esmv.org. Joan Hatem-Roy is the Chief Executive Officer of Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley and North Shore.