Transportation And The Elderly

Issues facing older adults who may be losing their ability to drive.

Currently, there are about 8.4 million senior citizens who depend on others for their transportation. Shortly, the number of older drivers will more than double, making the issue of senior transportation even more critical. In fact, according to the Administration on Aging, by the year 2030 the number of drivers over age 85 will be 4–5 times what it is today. Because America’s roads and automobiles are not designed for the existing elderly population—and because the skills and abilities associated with driving tend to diminish with age—viable alternate forms of transportation for the elderly will continue to be an important issue for years to come.

Losing The Ability To Drive

Generally, no individual plans for a time when he or she will no longer be able to drive. In fact, your loved one probably assumes that he or she will know when to stop driving, and at the same time, he or she probably believes that some of his or her friends aren’t safe drivers. Most individuals, however, never realize that it is time to stop driving. Instead, when faced with the lack of access to essential services, loss of social independence, reduced mobility, and isolation that come as a result of restricted or terminated driving privileges, an older adult often becomes defensive of his or her ability and right to drive. Even individuals who realize that driving may pose a threat to themselves and others struggle through the question of whether or not to give up the wheel.

As a caregiver, you may also struggle with when and how to tell your loved one that he or she needs to restrict or terminate driving activities. Even health care professionals and policy makers who are somewhat removed from the issue struggle to decide what conditions constitute poor driving behavior and the need for driving restrictions.

If your loved one recognizes his or her loss of driving ability or skill, he or she can use adapted driving patterns, thereby increasing his or her safety. The age-related changes associated with driving often occur in a predictable sequence over a number of years and cause a gradual narrowing the individual’s social world. These changes include:

  1. Physical and mental changes
  2. Age-related functional declines or skill loss lead to less driving
  3. Less driving leads to less overall mobility
  4. Less overall mobility leads to increased isolation and other quality of life changes

While these changes happen to many individuals, your loved one won’t necessarily experience each one. In fact, the condition of seniors who receive support throughout this process may even improve because these individuals benefit from programs—including alternative transportation modes, driver retraining, physical therapy, or relocation—for seniors with driving difficulties. These individuals generally:

  • Have a strong connection to a religious organization
  • Live in communities with viable non-driving transportation
  • Live with children or have children in the area
  • Reduce social activities and personal expectations to fit present circumstances
  • Have spouses or significant others who drive
  • Have sufficient financial resources to secure transportation
  • Have the physical ability to use alternate methods of transportation

However, the majority of older adults are not supported throughout this process and experience emotional, mobility, monetary, psychological, and social loss. More specifically, these losses can include feeling a loss of social status and spontaneity and an increase in planning and waiting time. Often, a non-driving individual feels that he or she must always plan around others’ schedules, and that trips are increasingly made out of necessity rather than for social reasons. These feelings can make asking family and friends for transportation incredibly difficult.

This may be especially true if your loved one has always been independent and self-sufficient. Such individuals often feel that the requested transportation is a favor that can’t be repaid. In contrast, whereas most caregivers would like their loved ones to feel comfortable requesting transportation, providing such transportation makes demands on caregivers’ time and money.

Alternate Transportation

The types of alternate transportation available in your loved one’s community will depend on the location and structure of the community. There are three general types of transportation for the elderly, including door-to-door, fixed route, and ridesharing. Door-to-door, or demand response, is a system where advance reservations are made to take an elderly individual from one place to another. Normally these services provide comfort and flexibility, and charge a small fee. Fixed route or scheduled services transport elderly individuals between fixed stops on a route. For this reason, reservations are not required, although a small fee is often charged for each ride. Finally, ridesharing programs coordinate rides for elderly persons with someone who has automobile space. Ridesharing is scheduled and involves a specific destination such as medical appointments, nutrition sites, places of employment, or senior centers.

Unfortunately for some older adults, some of the same skills and abilities that are associated with driving are required for the safe use of many alternate transportation methods. Yet, multiple interventions have been suggested as possible methods for lessening the consequences of this transition. These include:

  • Factual educational materials provided to the elderly
  • Improving driver capabilities
  • Improving mass transit and the image of mass transit
  • Positively framed discussions relating to the driving transition
  • Programs that offer dignified transportation for the elderly

The Administration on Aging is currently calling for these changes to be made as soon as possible, as the predicted increase in elderly drivers, traffic fatalities related to elderly driving, and social isolation resulting from the driving-to-non-driving transition continues. In the meantime, it is important for you, as a caregiver, to help your loved one obtain and use safe methods of transportation.

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