Many of us will be driving home this Thanksgiving to share a bountiful meal with family and friends. During this annual tradition, families travel from far and near to get together to enjoy turkey, pumpkin pie, parades and professional football. It has long been a time to give thanks for all that we have in our lives.
Going home for the holidays has layers of significance for adult children, particularly those who live out of town. It remains a time of togetherness and thankfulness, but it’s also an opportunity to observe your aging family members to determine if their physical and cognitive skills are still sufficient for safe driving. Following are three tips to help you gauge your loved one’s driving abilities on your next trip home:
Has your parent fallen in the past year?
Recent research has established a definite correlation between falls and older driver crash involvement. According to an article published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, older adults that have fallen two or more times in the previous year may be at a higher risk of being involved in an at-fault car crash.
The study, conducted by the Department of Ophthalmology, School of Medicine, and the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, also reported that older drivers who fell two or more times in the prior year were 1.5 times as likely to be involved in an accident and two times as likely to be involved in an at-fault accident.
The study’s bottom line; a history of frequent falling can serve as a valid indicator in identifying older drivers that are at a higher risk for future traffic accidents.
That’s pretty significant!
Are your parents physically active?
Exercise can help improve an older driver’s flexibility, coordination, strength, balance and range of motion. Simple stretching exercises can help an older driver look left or right more easily to check their blind spots, or to help ensure a safe lane change. Exercise can also help an older driver turn their neck and body to look behind them before backing. How many tragedies have we read about where an older driver backed over a pedestrian in a parking lot or in some cases, a family member in their own driveway?
A 2014 study by The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence and the M.I.T. Age Lab looked at the drivers who exercised for 15-20 minutes daily. The study participants reported greater ease in turning their heads to look in blind spots when changing lanes or backing up, compared with a similar group that did not exercise. The exercise group could also rotate their bodies easily to scan the road when making right-hand turns compared with non-exercisers.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Senior Health website offers specific exercises on improving endurance, strength, flexibility and balance.
How is your loved one’s memory holding up?
In the family setting, the issue surrounding the important role memory plays in older driver safety is often understated or even overlooked all together. For obvious reasons, when we discuss age-related diminished driving skills in older adults, we tend to focus on the physical attributes of safe driving (vision, reflexes, strength, flexibility, hearing, etc.), and may overlook the crucial role memory plays in keeping older drivers safe.
For any one of us, a significant decline in our memory can lead to disaster if we continue to drive without first making appropriate adjustments in out driving behavior and habits. Continuing to drive while ignoring noticeable memory decline can lead to tragedy, either through a car accident, or by unknowing becoming an excellent candidate for a victim of crime.
Older drivers that get lost may become confused and distracted by their unnerving circumstances. As they find themselves unaware of their surroundings, they are likely to develop a strong case of tunnel vision. The older driver may morph into a state of confusion, frustration and fear. They lose their ability to focus on the task at hand (the physical act of driving) and instead, concentrate on getting themselves back to familiar surroundings.
The older driver’s ability to focus on driving has been overwhelmed by their desire to re-orient themselves. In many cases, the individual may become scared and often times, tragedy becomes imminent.
Use your trip home this holiday season as a time to enjoy family and to give thanks for all that we have and have had. Use it to re-unite with family and friends and to kick-off the holiday season, but also, take just a few minutes to make sure your parents’ physical and cognitive skills are still conducive to safe driving.
If you believe there are concerns with a loved one’s driving skills, consider “Beyond Driving with Dignity; The workbook for the families of older drivers”, or Keeping Us Safe’s Enhanced Self-Assessment Program for older drivers.