For most people, getting a driver's license is a rite of passage that signifies coming of age. It's a mark of independence - even when someone doesn't have a vehicle to drive immediately upon getting their license or for someone who normally uses public transportation. Knowing that we have the ability to drive someplace of our choice without being dependent on others to take us there - even with a rental car - is empowering.
The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) sponsors the "Older Driver Safety Awareness Week" annually in December, and this is the week for it this year. It began Monday and runs through tomorrow (December 4-8).
The timing for the annual observance coincides with the time of year when families often come together for the holidays, and the AOTA believes that one of the first steps in addressing older driver safety is having a nonthreatening conversation with our loved ones.
The emphasis really is two-fold: (1) recognizing that physical, cognitive, and sensory changes can be occurring that can adversely affect a person's ability to be behind the wheel of a car and operate it safely, and (2) helping older drivers who are able to drive safely to be aware of how aging issues might affect their abilities and how to keep themselves, their passengers, and other drivers safe and free of incidents. Driver's education with a focus on safety never goes out of style.
However, when an older driver discovers the need to make adjustments to drive safely or when they (or a family member) determines that they can no longer do so, families and friends can help them take these changes in stride. Ceasing to drive because age has limited our ability to behave in a safe and responsible manner behind the wheel of a vehicle, is a natural occurrence - just as obtaining the driver's license was decades earlier. It doesn't have to be presented as a threat to the older driver's independence. It is just a lifestyle change that happens sooner or later to most people.
With increasing age come challenges in a person's continued ability to drive safely, but the real need is a broader awareness of the solutions, rather than a narrow focus on the problem. Each person is different, and vision, reflexes, response time, and other abilities are key to such a decision of ceasing to drive.
As aging in place specialists, we should be aware of that this occurs with advancing years and watch for signs that an intervention may be wise. Depending on our area of expertise and training, we may not be able to counsel a family and an elderly driver as well as an occupational therapist can. We need to rely on this resource to help keep our clients - and the general public that might be sharing the roadways with them - safe. Life goes on, even when driving for oneself is no longer a part of it.