Older Drivers Stay in the Driver’s Seat

Aging brings a host of twists and turns. But after decades of navigating change, older adults have established ways of being ready for the next thing coming around the corner. Changes to driving habits are among many adjustments made as life unfolds.

As it turns out, the older driver who stays in tune with shifts in their body and surroundings—and adapts accordingly—is a much safer driver and stays in the driver’s seat longer. It’s this ability to re-calibrate that Consumer Reports says makes older drivers generally safer than their counterparts at the other end of the age continuum, teens and drivers in their early 20’s.1 Only after age 85 do drivers start to experience car crash statistics higher than drivers under 29.

Sunnyside octogenarian Ellen Pelton has made refinements that work for her. She moved to North Denver a few years ago from a small town in New Mexico and loves now living close to her daughter. But Denver is a much bigger place than her previous home, so she’s decided to stay within her comfort zone, keeping to neighborhood streets and familiar locations.

Jill Couch, an occupational therapist with Pro31 Safe Senior Driver LLC, emphasizes that driving plays a pivotal role in three of the most important factors in healthy aging: social connections, mental stimulation and physical activity. Couch’s work focuses on concrete steps a driver can take to prolong their driving career. Her company offers a 3-hour in-home self-assessment for those ready to seriously strengthen their driving (or for drivers looking for an expert to help them determine if it’s time to give it up the keys altogether). She was happy to share a few tips.

Couch’s advice? 

  • Be proactive. 
  • Let your children and other people know what you’re doing to stay active and safe on the road. Keep up an exercise routine, especially one focused on fall prevention. 
  • Get your vision checked regularly. 
  • And, importantly, talk with your doctor or pharmacist about whether side effects of your medications might impair driving. You can visit www.roadwiseRX.com to plug in your specific medications and learn about interactions between them and how driving can be impacted.

Pelton echoes Couch’s last tip. If she adds or changes a medication, she reads warning paperwork carefully and watches for physical changes like dizziness, drowsiness or anything that might cloud her thinking or lead to weakness in her arms or legs.

Nonagenarian Elly Lindstrom, a North Denver native and Harkness Heights resident since 1951, gave up driving six years ago. Macular degeneration had led to declining vision, so she knew the day would come when she’d have to hang up her keys. “It was a hard decision. It changes everything,” she reflected. “You need to plan ahead when you can’t just pop out for what you need. But you do get used to it. It’s not a problem for me anymore.”

Lindstrom gave up driving after a minor car crash. It was a scary experience, though no one was seriously hurt. She gave the car to her grandson and moved on from the hassle and expense of car repairs and maintenance.

I asked Pelton The Million Dollar Question: How would you know if it were time to hang up the keys? It was an easy question for her: If, God forbid, she had an accident or came close. Or if a medication got in the way.

Anything else? “Oh yeah,” she says, laughing, “If my daughter says so.”

Note on COVID-19

If you’ve been off the road for a while connected to COVID-19, consider these last few tips before you get back behind the wheel: Ease back into an in-home exercise routine that focuses on fall-prevention and range of motion. Look back over the last few months and consider changes to medications and side effects. Bring a friend or family member along for those first few trips. Notice changes in your body or surroundings? Adapt accordingly. I know you will.

In the next few months we’ll explore alternative transportation services available in the neighborhood.

Send story ideas for The Gray Zone to thegrayzone.denvernorthstar@gmail.com. 

1.      https://www.consumerreports.org/elderly-driving/how-seniors-are-driving-safer-driving-longer/

Kathryn has lived in North Denver since around the time the Mount Carmel High School building was razed and its lot at 3600 Zuni became Anna Marie Sandoval Elementary. She teaches a SilverSneakers fitness class at Highland Senior Recreation Center and facilitates Simplified Pickleball and a Caregiver Support Group for the Alzheimer’s Association Colorado Chapter. Do you have story ideas for The Gray Zone? Email thegrayzone.denvernorthstar@gmail.com.


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