SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: Driving keeps us on an independent road

Maureen Wendt

A new study found that older adults who are able to continue driving safely are less likely to enter long-term care than those who have given up driving or who have never driven. The study included 1,593 older adults, ages 65 to 84, and was conducted over a 10-year period. While driving itself did not produce this effect, the independence that driving represents enables older adults to delay entry into a long-term care community. Non-drivers were four times more likely to enter long-term care than drivers, and the risk doubled for non-drivers without any other drivers in the home.

Although the slower driving habits of some seniors often steam impatient motorists, researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have found that elders who stay behind the wheel are less likely to enter nursing homes or assisted living centers than those who have never driven or who have given up driving altogether.

"We are not recommending continuation of driving for seniors who are a threat to themselves or others on the road," said the researchers. "Instead, we hope that understanding the very real health impact that losing the ability to drive has on seniors will encourage families to plan contingencies to assist elderly members with transportation issues."

The researchers also pointed out that losing the ability to drive poses an especially significant hardship to seniors living in isolated rural areas or any place without good, accessible public transportation for the elderly.

According to the study, the researchers set out to learn whether the loss of driving ability played a measurable role in an older person's eventual need for long-term care. The independence that accompanies a driver's license and car has long been linked anecdotally to a better quality of life for seniors.

This probably isn't so much about the process of driving but rather the larger issue of mobility as it relates to a person's independence. When someone becomes a shut-in due to the loss of their primary transportation, the likelihood that they will require living assistance categorically increases.

Non-drivers across the entire age group studied had four times the risk of long-term care entry compared to drivers, and the absence of other drivers in the home doubled the risk of entering long-term care. Nine percent of those studied entered long-term care for three months or more. By the end of the study, 29 percent of men and 58 percent of women had no other drivers in the household, and 22 percent of people who were driving at the beginning of the study reported that they stopped driving during the study.

These findings point to the importance of research into how to keep seniors driving and independent as long as is safely possible.

Maureen A. Wendt is president and CEO of The Dale Association, a non-profit organization that provides senior, mental health, in-home care, caregiver support services and enrichment activities for adults. For more information, call 433-1937 or visit www.daleassociation.com .

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