How should family hit brakes on older drivers?

Experts say sensitivity, providing options key when broaching topic

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

Published:

 

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Clark County's Driving Population: 75 and Older

Get help

Resources for older drivers and their families:

Hartford Financial Services Group offers a crash risk assessment, a guide for talking with an older person about their driving skills and other resources.

For a state form and guidance on how to report an unsafe driver, visit Washington State Department of Licensing. (The person making the report will not be able to keep their name confidential).

Learn how to use Clark County’s public transportation system in the C-Tran Rider Training Program. Travel ambassadors can help guide newcomers in using the system. 360-695-8918 or 360-695-0123.

Reserve-A-Ride program for medical appointments and Sponsor-A-Ride from Human Services Council, 360-258-2103.

Volunteer Transportation from Catholic Community Services, 360-213-2403.

AARP Driver Safety (Training) Program 360-574-2472.

50-Plus Travel Program: The Messenger, news@seniormessen..., 360-750-9900.

Senior Transportation from Southwest Washington Agency on Aging and Disabilities (SWAAD). There are eligibility restrictions for the program. 360-694-9997.

SWAAD pamphlets with guidance for families with an older driver, SWAAD office, 201 NE 73rd St. Suite 201, Vancouver.

Source: SWAAD and

Columbian research

When Vancouver resident David Kelly’s 82-year-old mother was seen driving on a street median in Portland, Kelly became the family designee to confiscate her keys.

“I was shaking in my boots when I did it,” Kelly recounted. “She was madder than a hornet.”

While Kelly can recall the memory with a sense of humor, driving privileges are one of the last vestiges of independence. Breaking the news that it’s time to give up the car keys may not go over well. It’s important to take that step with sensitivity and provide elders with alternative modes of transportation, according to experts.

“It’s not only a loss of independence; it’s a loss of dignity,” said Mike Reardon, community services program manager at the Southwest Washington Agency on Aging and Disabilities. “It’s just one more piece being taken away because I can’t do one more thing.”

Some seniors recognize that their driving skills have deteriorated and, without any prodding, they give up their keys, vehicle and driver’s license. Those who do not, however, may need an intervention in the best-case scenario. In the worst-case scenario, they could cause a tragedy, as was the case with a 75-year-old Portland man who mistook his gas pedal for his brake in November 2010 and struck and killed a 22-month-old boy in a stroller in north Portland. The toddler’s father and another man also were hit but survived.

Just a month before, an 82-year-old driver slammed his station wagon into a Japanese restaurant in northwest Portland, injuring the manager and a customer, according to The Oregonian.

Growing old doesn’t turn people into bad drivers, Reardon said. In fact, they’re often safer drivers, he added.

“That doesn’t seem to change the perception of older drivers,” Reardon said.

People 70 and older are less likely to be licensed to drive compared with younger peo

ple, and they drive fewer miles, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. They’re also less likely to commit traffic infractions than the general population.

In Clark County, one in seven residents 16 and older were cited for or convicted of traffic infractions between March 2011 and March 2012, compared with one in 51 residents 75 and older, according to an analysis by The Columbian of criminal and noncriminal infraction statistics from Clark County District Court and Census figures.

However, the rate of fatal vehicle crashes involvements per 100 million miles traveled is higher for drivers 80 and older than for drivers of any other age group except teenagers, according to U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Drivers 85 and older had the highest rate of fatal crash involvement.

Older drivers are keeping their licenses longer and driving more miles than in the past, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. That trend is likely to continue with the baby boomers who are expected to live longer than their predecessors and generally have a more youthful perception of themselves.

More often than not, it’s after a tragedy or a near miss that family members intervene.

SWAAD receives an average of two to three calls per week from people concerned about an elderly relative driving, said Marina Nazaretyan, SWAAD senior information and assistance program coordinator.

“We actually get calls from out-of-town children of parents living here,” said Kelly, who is SWAAD’s executive director. “‘My parents are still driving. What are we going to do about that?’”

Experts recommend that families be more proactive about preparing for the change. Have a family meeting, Reardon said.

“Let’s talk about this as a family,” Reardon said. “We know you are getting older. We know driving is important to you. At what point should we take the keys away and start looking for other rides for you? It’s a softer approach than ’Let’s go to the doctor to take away your keys.’ That’s very abrupt.”

Some of the signs that a senior should consider giving up driving include driving slower than traffic, slow reaction time, failing to stop at red lights, confusing the gas and brake pedals and losing control of the vehicle.

“They exhibit some of the symptoms of drunk drivers,” said Vancouver police Cmdr. Dave King.

Police who pull over a senior driver they suspect needs to stop driving can make a request to the state Department of Licensing for a retest. In fact, anyone can request that a driver be retested for their driver’s license by filling out a Driver Evaluation Request form available on the department’s website.

There were about 115 retests in Vancouver’s two regional Department of Licensing offices between April 2011 and March 2012, according to department statistics.

“Retesting usually happens when drivers come in and renew their license, and the worker sees they’re having some difficulty walking in or sees them drive in and requests a retest,” said Christine Anthony, Department of Licensing spokesperson. “You can be reported by other people, and that can also cause a retest situation.”

People who report a driver for a retest may not keep their name confidential, Anthony said.

“The problem is when you take away someone’s driver’s license, you take away their freedom,” King said. “They look at that, and they say, ‘You have just sentenced me to be a prisoner in my house.’”

One way to put that fear to rest is to offer up transportation alternatives during the same conversation about giving up driving.

“A strategy is to say, ‘I’m seeing in your driving habits you are not stopping at red lights. Here are some options we need to consider. Perhaps I can step up and drive you to where you need to go, and I can call some of your friends so that you can go to that ladies’ lunch you like to go to.’”

There are ways to give seniors a sense of independence even after the loss of their car keys. Personal and in-home care is available at a reduced rate to low-income seniors on Medicaid. Seniors with the means can pay for private companion services, which can cost about $20 an hour on the low end.

Less costly alternatives include transportation services, some of which are free. Reardon suggests talking to family members and friends about arranging rides for regular social outings, appointments and errands. There’s also a menu of free services in the community, including a training program for new riders of C-Tran, volunteer transportation through Catholic Community Services, ride programs through the Human Services Council, Senior Transportation Services through SWAAD, and the 50-Plus Travel program through Vancouver-Clark Parks & Recreation.

Reardon said there’s no easy way to take away driving privileges. Seeing a doctor can be a good way to approach the problem, especially when the driver is in denial.

“Older generations have a high regard for a physician’s opinion,” Reardon said. “Hearing from a physician to give up the keys is one strategy.”

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.