- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005

Making the decision to give up one’s car and driver’s license is a difficult step for many seniors. Logistically, it means finding alternate ways of getting places. Emotionally, it is a tough hurdle.

“Driving is the American way,” says John Townsend II, manager of government and public relations for AAA of the mid-Atlantic region. “A car is a sign of independence. A home and car are symbols of success. Seniors normally downsize their home, but a car is the last thing they want to give up.”

Sometimes the decision to stop driving comes quickly, such as after surgery or a stroke. Other times, the signs may show over time. The AARP offers some factors to consider when evaluating whether to continue driving:

• Feeling less comfortable or more nervous when driving.

• Difficulty staying in the lane of travel.

• Frequent close calls (nearly getting in an accident).

• More frequent dents and scrapes with mailboxes, garage doors, etc.

• Other drivers honking at you more often.

• Getting lost more often.

• Difficulty seeing the sides of the road (i.e., cars seem to come “out of nowhere”).

• Confusing the gas and brake pedals or having slower response between the two.

• More tickets or minor accidents in the past year or two.

If drivers notice one or more of the above, it may be time to take a refresher course, be assessed by a driver rehabilitation specialist, talk with a doctor, test out a program such as AAA’s “Roadwise Review” or look for transportation alternatives, Mr. Townsend says.

“Most of us won’t see it unless we have a devastating illness,” he says. “These things tend to happen in small increments.”

Many times, it falls on adult children to express their concern to their parents. This can be very difficult, especially if the older driver is reluctant to restrict his or her driving.

Doctors also have a tough time discussing driving with older patients, says Dr. Germaine Odenheimer, a neurologist and geriatrician in Oklahoma City. Dr. Odenheimer specializes in teaching physicians how to assess elderly drivers.

“I have found this to be one of the most difficult conversations,” she says of broaching the subject with an older driver. “People have told me if they can’t drive, they might as well be dead.”

Dr. Odenheimer says adult children preparing to have the driving conversation with their parents should be ready for resistance.

“For some families, having this discussion is not that hard,” she says. “I think it has to do with the underlying relationship. Typically, men will be the most resistant.”

The best way to approach the conversation is with a positive tone, Dr. Odenheimer says.

Taking the approach of “I know you want to keep driving, but you don’t want to hurt people,” is a good start, Dr. Odenheimer says. Other ways to get the conversation going: Talk about an accident in the news or talk about when another relative, such as a grandparent, stopped driving.

It also is a good idea to research alternate transportation options ahead of time. For people who live near a Metro line, the transition may not be so big, although AAA estimates that just 3 percent of Americans 60 and older regularly use public transportation.

For rural and suburban residents, the transition will be more marked.

“Alternate transportation is a national issue,” says Katherine Freund, executive director of Independent Transportation Network (ITN), a nonprofit group in Portland, Maine, that provides rides 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The ITN, one of 400 community-based supplemental transportation programs (STP) for seniors, provides a model for several communities looking to start an STP.

“Mobility is essential,” says Ms. Freund, who started the organization after one of her children was hit by an elderly driver. “It is hard to stop driving when you have no other choices.”

Members of Ms. Freund’s group pay a membership fee, then fund an account that covers their rides. The price of rides varies by distance but still is usually less expensive than paying for gas, maintenance and insurance on a car, Ms. Freund says. Some seniors have donated their cars to the ITN. In return, they get a hefty credit to their account.

A similar nonprofit program, Neighbor Ride, started in Howard County in November. Neighbor Ride, modeled after a successful program in Pasadena, Calif., is primarily staffed by volunteers. Drivers take seniors to social visits, doctor appointments, religious services and other events.

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