Life after left turns

Giving up the car keys a tough call for some seniors
By: Paul Cambra, Journal Staff Writer
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The statistics are out there. According to AAA, senior drivers are the fastest-growing segment of the population and, other than teenagers, the most likely to be killed while behind the wheel. And it’s not for lack of safety. “We change physically as we age. So how do we compensate for those changes?” said Rod Gross, who teaches a senior driver education course through the AARP. It could be as simple as adding a second to your follow time. Or learning an exercise to help maintain flexibility and mobility in your legs, so you can pivot and check blind spots. “We try to maximize safety features in a car,” Gross said. “If they are shopping for a new car, we recommend air bags, particularly side ones. A lot of accidents occur in intersections, most crashes are into the side of the vehicle.” One issue the class addresses is, “How do you know when it is time to turn in the keys?” “It’s the hardest to teach, and the hardest to sit through,” Gross said. “There’s a correlation, at least in our culture, between freedom and giving up your ability to drive.” Andrea Clark, 84, of Auburn, was not given a choice. “I had a stroke when I was 81 and the hospital took my license away automatically,” Clark said. “They said I can get it back, but I just didn’t feel like it. I sold the car instead.” Clark lives on a bus line and uses cab or good-old walking to get around. “I find it inconvenient occasionally, but a lot less expensive,” she said. The decision to give up driving was an easy one for Auburn’s Peggy Machado, 90. “It happened in my driveway,” Machado said. “I thought I was in drive, but I was in reverse. Same thing happened to a girlfriend of mine, but she ran into a building. Fortunately nothing bad happened to me.” Machado gave her car to her grandson and now spends a lot more time at home. “It just means I can do more knitting now,” she said. For seniors in Auburn in need of transportation, Seniors First offers a “Door to Door Rides” program. With a little notice, donation-based rides are available for medical and dental appointments, grocery shopping or banking. Amy Bakker arranges transportation services for Seniors First. “A lot of our passengers’ drivers licenses were not renewed due to eyesight, or an accident where it was taken away,” Bakker said. “Others might call in and say, ‘you know what, I just can’t drive anymore.’” She said that many seniors are nervous and not sure about public transit or the options available to them, they’ve been driving for so long. “We have to give them a lot of reassurance. We will be there on time to get you to your appointment, and you will get a return ride, we’re not going to leave you there,” Bakker said. The program asks for two business days’ notice and works on weekdays only. Betty Powell would like to see this idea taken to another level. “What we need are more volunteers that can spontaneously drive a senior,” Powell said. “It would be great to have a pool of people to draw from. There’s only going to be more of a need as all the boomers reach retirement age.” Powell, 72, manages the Friendly Visitor Program for Seniors First. She drives regularly herself, but is aware of the limitations that come with age. “I try not to drive at night, at least in places I’m not familiar with,” Powell said. She also feels multi-tasking and driving are not compatible, which is why she listens to music in the car, but avoids talk radio. She plans ahead and allows plenty of time to get from here to there. She does not take driving for granted. “When a senior all of a sudden cannot drive, it’s a huge adjustment. They have lost a little of their independence, and now have to depend on other people,” Powell said “A lot is said about feeding seniors, but travel is one of the most important things to keep seniors going. To keep them from being isolated, get them out into the community.” Powell said that those getting older should consider where they will live in retirement. While country living is attractive to some, living in town makes it easier to get around and you are eligible for certain services. Can Powell envision an end to her days behind the wheel? “When I feel like I’m a danger to myself and especially others, I’ll give up the keys,” she said. “When my son visits, he always asks me to drive him places. He’s watching me.”