Giving Up the Car Keys Because of Aging and Vision Loss

The ability to drive is an integral part of life and independence. Being able to jump into the car anytime and go anywhere provides an incredible freedom of movement.

However, as people age, they can experience hearing and vision impairment. They may also experience a decline in cognition. These health issues can make it unsafe to drive and a struggle to give up the car keys.

According to the CDC, more than 45 million licensed drivers were 65 and older in the United States in 2018. This is a 60% increase since 2000. However, the risk of being injured or killed in a traffic crash increases as people age. In 2019, about 8,000 older adults (aged 65+) were killed in traffic crashes, and more than 250,000 were treated in emergency rooms for crash injuries.

Seniors want to remain active as long as possible and see driving as vital to their independence. Older Driver Safety Awareness Week, December 6-10, underscores the fundamental role that mobility and transportation play in keeping seniors involved in their communities. During this first full week in December, it is suggested seniors living with vision impairment reevaluate their condition to determine if continuing to drive is best. This is also a good time for the loved ones of older drivers to discuss any safety concerns.

Signs it’s time to stop driving.

How do you know when it’s time? Only you know the full answer to this question, but here are ten helpful signs provided by Second Sense, a vision rehabilitation center:

  1. You are nervous behind the wheel.

  2. Your vision slows your reactions.

  3. You have trouble reading street signs.

  4. You’ve had a near mishap because you didn’t see a pedestrian, object, or vehicle.

  5. You get lost easily.

  6. Oncoming lights temporarily blind you.

  7. The sun hurts your eyes, but dark lenses make seeing difficult.

  8. You find it abnormally tricky to see at dusk or dawn.

  9. Your color perception is diminished.

  10. People whom you trust recommend it. (Sometimes they notice things you don’t.)

Vision changes that affect driving.

In addition to the ten signs, discuss vision concerns with your eye doctor. Your doctor can do a comprehensive eye exam and diagnose changes in your vision. Have an eye exam annually to maintain good eye health. Here are some vision changes that come with aging.

  1. Decreased pupil size: Aging reduces pupil size, which means eyes are less responsive to changes in light. Seniors need more ambient light to see clearly. Reduced pupil size can also cause a glare effect in bright sunlight. Glare sensitivity can cause temporary loss of clear vision and impact reaction time when driving.

  2. Vitreous detachment: The eye’s vitreous body is a clear gel between the retina and the lens. Aging causes vitreous detachment, leading to flashes of light, floaters, or spots. While the effects are mostly harmless on foot, they can impact your line of vision behind the wheel.

  3. Presbyopia: Presbyopia affects adults 40 and older. This is a term for difficulty seeing things up close. Safe driving requires reading signs and seeing what’s in front of you to avoid hitting things, park correctly, and complete other essential driving functions.

  4. Low-light vision difficulties: As people enter their 60s, their ability to see clearly in low lighting decreases, making driving at sunset and later harder.

  5. Myopia: Also known as nearsightedness, myopia can be a myopic creep, meaning the condition worsens with age. Myopia can make it difficult to read highway signs or see vehicles and hazards in the distance.

  6. Loss of peripheral vision: Each decade, peripheral vision decreases by up to three degrees. This means that when you reach your 70s, you may have lost peripheral vision by around 20 degrees. This can impact your ability to see the vehicles around you and change lanes safely, especially when obstacles are in blind spots.

  7. Dry eyes: We produce fewer tears as we age, which can lead to dry eyes. Dry eyes can result in burning or stinging sensations. If these come on while driving, it can be distracting and dangerous.

Coping with putting the keys down.

Eye doctors are not the only ones concerned about vision impairment and driving. Family and friends may also express worries. If you are a loved one or friend of a senior who needs to stop driving, approach the topic with love and sensitivity. Schedule time for a full discussion. Share key points of concern and risk while offering encouragement. Provide a list of options for alternative transportation.

If you discover your vision has decreased and driving is unsafe, your life is not over. You can still keep a level of independence and mobility. First, recognize feelings of grief and loss, as the ability to drive is a major part of life. Next, talk to family and friends to share any worries, fears, and concerns. Create a circle of support for this significant life change to help you manage the challenges and produce solutions. Attending Outlook Enrichment’s peer support group is a great place to start and chat with others who share similar experiences.

Use alternative transportation.

Investigate alternative transportation. Research public transit, ride-share programs, senior ride programs, taxi cabs, and rides from friends and family. Requesting a ride is not a sign of helplessness. You can still maintain control and independence by determining your type of transportation and when you want to travel. Helpful resources are available for seniors with vision loss. Outlook Enrichment can help you explore ways to stay mobile and maintain your independence and quality of life.

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