Aging Options

When is it time for Seniors to stop driving?

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Taking Away the Keys: Study Shows Seniors Face Health Decline When They Stop Driving


Among the “hot button” issues that create conflicts between seniors and their family members, one of the hottest can involve driving. Older adults generally want to keep on driving as long as they can, enjoying the benefits of freedom and mobility. Meanwhile their adult children worry about slower reflexes, cognitive decline or increased reaction time, all potentially dangerous when Mom or Dad gets behind the wheel. (We’ve written about the issue of cognitive decline and its effect on driving safety in the past on the AgingOptions Blog: you’ll find this archived article here.)  The topic of when and how to take away the car keys comes up frequently in conversations with clients and radio listeners.


Giving Up Driving Triggers Decline in Health


But there’s another side to this issue.  This article on a website called Knowridge Science Report presents a side of the driving story many family members overlook.  The article, based on an extensive research project conducted by Columbia University, reported on an unfortunate side effect to giving up driving: for many seniors it marks the beginning of rapid physical and emotional decline.  It’s important for any loved one involved in persuading a parent to give up their car to know that, while you may be improving their physical safety and that of others by getting them off the road, there may be some potentially negative consequences.


A Shrinking Social Circle


According to the Knowridge article, there are more than 29 million American adults 65 and older, and about 80 percent of those are still licensed, active drivers. From our teenage years, Americans are conditioned to equate driving with freedom, independence and control. So when a senior has to give up driving privileges, their sense of control over their life can diminish or disappear along with the driver’s license. As the Knowridge article explains, Columbia University researchers surveyed the results of 16 separate studies of adults 55 and older and made a stark discovery:  “Data showed that older adults experienced faster declines in cognitive function and physical health after stopping driving.”


As if these negative effects weren’t bad enough, researchers also noted that, when older adults stopped driving, the size of their social network – friends and relatives with whom they stay in close face to face contact – shrank by roughly 50 percent. At a time of life when socializing is particularly important, seniors find they are losing their ability to engage with others as their circle of friends grows smaller.  Researchers further found that those who have been forced to give up their driving privileges are nearly five times more likely as current drivers to be institutionalized, even after adjusting the data to compensate for marital status and other factors.


Why does the loss of driving privileges trigger faster emotional and physical decline?  One Columbia professor who co-authored the study explained that losing the ability to drive means seniors become less mobile and potentially more house-bound. “As older ex-drivers begin substituting outside activities with indoor activities around the home, these activities may not be as beneficial to physical functioning as working or volunteering on the outside.” This means that those closest to a senior who can no longer drive need to pay special attention to keeping their aging loved one active and engaged.


Time for a Serious Family Talk


Is your parent or loved one showing signs of age-related physical or cognitive decline? Are you worried whenever they get behind the wheel and take to the road? It is certainly time for a heart to heart conversation about your concerns for their safety and the safety of others. But as the Knowridge article demonstrates, this difficult issue is fraught with conflicting considerations. As part of our services here at AgingOptions, we can offer to host a family conference in our office where everyone involved can gather in a neutral setting with our trained professional staff as moderators and facilitators. We strongly recommend this type of family conference as a means of clearing the air regarding a whole host of issues that have the potential to create family conflict in the future. After all, aging is a family affair, and the sooner you all get on the same page, the better.


We would also add that the sooner you get a fully-developed retirement plan in place, the better – and that’s why we urge you to investigate the service we call LifePlanning. A LifePlan is a unique and comprehensive type of retirement plan in which all aspects of your retirement living – financial security, legal affairs, housing choices, medical coverage and family communication – fit together like pieces of a puzzle. We invite you to learn just how powerful LifePlanning can be for you and those you love. Invest just a few hours and attend one of our free LifePlanning Seminars, scheduled in locations throughout the area. For dates, times, locations and online registration, click the link, or contact us during the week. Let us be your guide as you chart the course for the retirement future you’ve dreamed of. We’ll see you soon!


(originally reported at

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