According to a recent study, elderly drivers who stop driving and have no transportation alternatives become less socially active and risk isolation. This can lead to a decline in both physical and mental health.
Teja Pristavec, a sociology researcher at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, sought to determine the effect of driving mobility on the social participation of older Americans. Pristavec defines driving mobility as a combination of being able to drive oneself and receiving rides. She looked at driving habits and social activities of more than 4,300 adults over age 65, using survey data collected in 2011 and 2013 by the National Health and Aging Trends Study.
Compared to seniors who had stopped driving, she found that frequent drivers are more than three times more likely to visit friends and family, and almost three times as likely to participate in social outings like going to the movies. They were also more than twice as likely to attend religious services or organized group activities. But when they lost the ability to drive and had no transportation alternatives, their participation in social activities declined to the same level as those who never drove at all. A decrease in driving frequency, from frequent driving to occasional driving to not driving, lowers social participation.
Most older adults start ceasing to drive by limiting their driving behaviors. They drive less frequently, shorter distances and to fewer destinations, adapt speed, and restrict trips to familiar roads and particular hours. How long they can continue to drive, even occasionally, will likely depend on their confidence, capabilities, and whether they live in a city or rural area. A smaller town usually means less traffic and a slower pace, making it safer for a senior to drive more slowly and cautiously. City driving, of course, is stressful for persons of all ages.
Some need a little help in making the decision to stop driving, and family members can watch for signs. For example, the driver may start making all right turns in order to avoid turning left at an intersection, or insist on having a navigator so he or she can concentrate solely on driving. A driver who becomes disoriented or has trouble following directions may also need to be discouraged from driving. At some point, it becomes a safety issue—both for the senior and for the public at large.
Keeping seniors socially engaged is vital to their physical and mental well-being in later years. Pristovec’s study illuminates the need for seniors to have transportation options when their driving abilities lessen and cease, pointing to the need for developing transportation alternatives that are accessible and non-stigmatizing. These options could facilitate continued participation without older adults feeling burdensome or risking their safety (and the safety of others) with prolonged self-driving.
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