Who’s going to drive old Miss Daisy?

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WASHINGTON – As people live longer and more older drivers give up their driving privileges, family, friends and public officials may find themselves asking, as it was in a popular film, “who’s going to drive Miss Daisy?”

The question could become a critical one as America ages, according to a new study, which finds older men and women who outlive their ability or willingness to drive may be dependent on alternative transportation for more than a decade in later life.

Older drivers. “Hundreds of thousands of older people quit driving each year and must turn to alternative transportation. This change in status can create unforeseen economic and social burdens that need to be addressed in the same way we have encouraged people to think about planning for retirement and end-of-life care,” said Dan Foley, a biostatistician at the National Institute on Aging and lead author of the study.

Almost 10 percent of the nation’s drivers are older than 65, and that percentage could increase rapidly in the next decade as the post-World War II “baby boom” generation begins to reach that milestone.

Projections. In addition, a greater proportion of women 65 or older is driving than in the past. By 2030, projections suggest one in five Americans will be 65 or older, and the number of people 85 and older – currently the fastest growing segment of the older population – could exceed 10 million.

But in Foley’s study, driving cessation peaked at about 85, suggesting more of the oldest old may be dependent on other forms of transportation in the future.

Overall, the study’s findings suggest that more than 600,000 people 70 or older stop driving each year and become dependent on others to meet their transportation needs.

Reasons to stop driving. About 400,000 older drivers die of all causes annually. Other than death, poor vision, memory impairment and an inability to perform one or more activities of daily living (bathing, dressing, eating, transferring between bed and chair, toileting, and getting around inside the home) were common reasons older people stopped driving.

“Driving skills are dependent on three areas of wellness: physical fitness, thinking clearly and seeing well,” Foley said. “Whether a person can continue driving hinges on the severity of the disability or functional loss in one or more of these three areas.

“Over time, people seem to reach thresholds where they believe they can no longer safely drive.”

Statistical analysis showed that the average number of years a person continued to drive – the driving expectancy – was significantly less than overall life expectancy.

For instance, men and women who were still driving at 70 to 74 were expected to drive, on average, another 11 years. But these men were expected to live about 17 more years, and the women nearly 21 more years.

Dependence. This gap between driving expectancy and overall life expectancy means men in this age group who stopped driving were dependent on alternative transportation for an average of six years. For women, the gap translated into about 10 years dependence on other transportation modes.

At 85, those still driving had a driving expectancy of about two years. But even at this age, men would have four non-driving years of life remaining and women nearly six years.

“Driving has an essential role in helping older men and women live independently. However, with age, a person’s competence and confidence behind the wheel may erode to the point that quitting becomes an unfortunate necessity and dependence on other means of transportation becomes an inevitable reality,” Foley said.

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