By Richard P. Holm, MD
As a teenager, like many others, I yearned for independence and resisted my parents’ rules and restrictions. Now I realize my parents struggled with how much freedom to allow me while best guiding me into adulthood. It’s an old story: kids want freedom; parents are reluctant to give up control. Think back when you first obtained a driver’s license and borrowed the family car. Remember, after some error in judgement or indiscretion, how the car-privilege was taken away and, even when justified, how devastating that was?
Now the tables may be turned, and the aging parent is threatened or devastated by losing the car-privilege after some error in judgement or just because of advanced age. As a Geriatrician, I have heard too many adult children ask me to tell their parents to stop driving. To the adult child, this is protecting his dad. To the elderly person, this is a double blow: losing the car-privilege feeling of independence AND the freedom to be mobile. Think about it, who’s more dangerous on the road: an 18-20-year-old male in a muscle car, a 16-year-old female with a cellphone, or grandma?
There are three lessons here. First, elderly persons who are ‘competent’ should be allowed to make their own choice when to stop driving. In my years of practice, I have advised many competent elderly people, “If you think you might be putting others or yourself at risk, then YOU decide when to stop or cut back on driving.” When night vision is poor, neck flexibility is reduced, reflexes are slowed, hearing is poor, posture is bad—then think about it. If you can’t decide or this is a borderline question, consider a ‘Driver Improvement Course for Seniors’ through the American Automobile Association (AAA) and test yourself. Then you make that choice.
The second lesson: elderly persons who are NOT ‘competent’ shouldn’t drive. When their ‘learn-a-new-thing’ memory is poor and when accidents start piling up, then it’s time for someone step in. The elderly person first needs to see the doctor for evaluation. Afterwards, if declared incompetent, it means no driving, will-making, check-writing, or consenting to an operation.
The third lesson is for everyone and every family to realize how important is the freedom to drive, especially for individuals trying to grow up with independence OR age with dignity. We should all recognize what a precious freedom and right it is to drive.[i]