FRIDAY, April 27, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Driving can be a major factor in elderly people's quality of life, affecting their mental health and overall well-being, an expert says.
If an older driver's diminishing abilities behind the wheel are cause for concern, the issue needs to be dealt with compassionately to preserve the person's dignity and keep them and others safe, says Dr. Kavon Young, a geriatric specialist with the Harris County Hospital District in Texas.
"Aging is a process where so many things are lost," Young said in a hospital district news release. "Part of what seniors try to hold onto is their independence -- the independence to make decisions about their health, their future and their driving. To them, driving is more than a way to get from one place to another."
Being forced to hang up the car keys can harm a senior's self-esteem and may trigger depression, anxiety and loneliness, Young said. In some cases, a person may feel isolated and not want to keep up with their medical care.
"A lot of factors ... go into discussing driving with seniors because the goal is to maintain their dignity in the process. These are adults and should be treated as such," said Young, an assistant professor in the division of geriatric and palliative medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
If you're concerned about an elderly loved one's ability to drive safely, have an open and honest talk about driving and safety concerns, Young suggested. Most seniors will limit their driving if they don't feel safe, but some may not be aware of vision and memory deficits, and will not restrict their driving.
Young said signs that an elderly person's driving could be cause for concern include: longer drive times for short distances; not obeying traffic signs; forgetting destinations or locations; hitting curbs; and being angry or anxious when driving.
"Start the discussion early and agree that you won't make a decision based on one particular event," Young said. "Having this agreement will take the pressure off the senior. Sometimes family members or caregivers get upset and decide to stop all driving privileges, which can be traumatic for the senior."
In cases where an elderly person's driving abilities are a concern, you can suggest that they limit drives to short distances; drive only to familiar places; avoid driving at night; avoid driving during bad weather; and make use of a chauffeur list that includes family and friends.
The U.S. National Institute on Aging has more about older drivers.