Taking the car keys away from an elderly relative is a heart-wrenching decision, but it's one that more families will face because of a growing elderly population.
"As the baby boomers get older, you'll see a lot of people having to give up their driving privileges," Suzanne Levin, director of the Cockeysville Senior Center, said. "It's a tough topic to talk about."
Levin said families of older motorists should keep an eye out for memory issues, confusion and disorientation in their loved ones. She also warns that some physical ailments, such as heart attacks, can cause slower reflexes, which will also impede driving ability.
Dr. Janet Sunness, medical director of the Greater Baltimore Medical Center’s Hoover Rehabilitation Services for Low Vision and Blindness, cites macular degeneration, a leading cause of vision loss in the elderly, as a primary health concern for older drivers.
“About 10 percent of people over the age of 75 have the condition,” Sunness said. “It’s a significant issue.”
But Sunness, also a member of the Motor Vehicle Administration Medical Advisory Board, said her philosophy is to let people drive as long as they safely can.
“If you look at elderly people, their driving needs are pretty straightforward. They go to church, see the kids, go shopping,” she said. “It’s a tough call to take away the keys for good, but there are options in between.”
The Motor Vehicle Administration’s Modified Vision Driving Program enables older drivers to stay on the road, with restrictions.
“The training is geared toward [motorists] driving safely,” Sunness said. “Many elderly people can’t see as well at night, are sensitive to glare, have a slower reaction time. The program addresses that.”
The Modified Vision Driving Program tests driving ability, and grants limited licenses accordingly. For example, some licenses may permit drivers to only drive within certain geographical boundaries, or during certain hours. Motorists are re-evaluated on a yearly basis.
But this isn’t an option for everyone.
Dr. Judah Ronch, dean of the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Erickson School of Aging Studies, said talking to severely impaired elderly motorists about giving up their car keys is difficult but necessary.
“You can’t just have one conversation,” Ronch said. “You must have many. We shouldn’t expect them to say, ‘Sure, whatever you say.’”
Ronch urges families and friends to acknowledge that losing driving privileges is a threat to a person’s independence, but insists that the dangers of unsafe driving must be pointed out.
He also asks loved ones to step up and help elderly motorists get around.
“Because of the way we build communities, not being able to drive is a bad outcome,” Ronch said. “It takes a coordinated response.”
Ronch warns that as populations of elderly people increase, the issue will become even more prevalent.
“It’s a big problem, and it’s only getting bigger.”