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Down shifting

FARGO -- Being in control is an important part of driving. It's also important to seniors who are thinking about hanging up the car keys for good. "They want to be in control of the process," said Catherine Sullivan, an associate professor of occ...

FARGO -- Being in control is an important part of driving.

It's also important to seniors who are thinking about hanging up the car keys for good.

"They want to be in control of the process," said Catherine Sullivan, an associate professor of occupational therapy at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.

For many seniors, giving up driving is a progressive transition, not an abrupt stepping on the brakes, said Sullivan, who is also president of the Minnesota Gerontological Society.

"People start by curtailing their driving," Sullivan said.


"They will not drive at night. They won't drive on certain roads. They even won't take left turns," said Sullivan, who added that such behavior should be encouraged by family members because it can lead to ongoing conversations about when it is safe, or no longer safe, for someone to get behind the wheel.

Helping to steer

The suggestion that someone should curb their driving, or stop all together, can be a touchy one, said Sullivan, who advised that talks among family members can be a good way to approach the issue, if done carefully.

As part of researching issues surrounding seniors and driving, Sullivan and her students found people who gave up driving and talked to them about what led up to the decision.

Men were found to be more open to the idea of stopping or cutting down on their driving when the idea came from their spouse, Sullivan said.

For women, the suggestion was more effective coming from a son or daughter.

Surrendering the car keys can be tough for anyone, but Sullivan said research suggests the transition causes the greatest anxiety in men.

"It's so tied to their identity. It's very, very difficult," she said.


Even when seniors are open to doing less driving, they may not know when the time is right, Sullivan said.

She said resources are available to senior drivers on the AAA-sponsored Web site: www.seniordrivers.org , including a tool for measuring abilities important for driving.

"It's like a totally individualized computerized screening tool online," Sullivan said.

Depending on how someone performs, the Web site may advise further evaluation, or warn someone they should stop driving immediately, Sullivan said.

Tough love

Telling someone they should stop driving may be a harsh thing to hear, but it's also a difficult thing to tell someone, said Kathy Pederson, a Minnesota State Patrol trooper who conducts workshops for law enforcement officers on issues relating to older drivers.

When an older driver crosses paths with an officer because of a traffic stop or accident, oftentimes there is a reluctance on the part of the officer to write the person up, Pederson said.

"Their bias is toward seniors," she said. "They don't write the ticket, because it's grandma. They want to keep them driving."


But a traffic stop or incident can be a starting point for seniors and their families to talk about driving and safety, Pederson said.

The sooner that happens, the better, said Lt. Jody Skogen of the North Dakota Highway Patrol. Crashes often have serious repercussions for seniors, he said.

"A lot of times, the injuries are very difficult to recover from. When you get older, they can be debilitating," Skogen said.

He said when troopers are approached by people looking for advice regarding a senior they have concerns about, they are often referred to AARP, which offers a program called "We Need to Talk." The program is designed to help people start a conversation with a loved one.

Skogen said if a situation warrants it, troopers will refer a senior driver to the state licensing bureau for re-examination.

"That (referral) can also be done by a doctor, if they feel there are some medical concerns that need to be re-evaluated," she said.

Alternative routes

Anytime someone is considering giving up driving, they should also be looking for transportation alternatives, according to Sullivan, who said people may keep driving beyond the point of safety because they fear they have no other options.


Even when seniors are aware of what's available to them, it's a good idea for them to explore those options long before it becomes a necessity, she said.

"Once a month, or whatever, go on a trip with friends," Sullivan advised. "So when the time comes, you will be familiar with that new way of getting around."

Seniors are generally a frugal lot and the notion of paying for a ride, even if it is just a few dollars, may seem extravagant, Sullivan said.

She said research done by her students shows that owning and operating a car is often more expensive than alternatives, even if someone takes cab rides several times a week.

Sullivan said when she shared that information with some of the more senior sisters at St. Catherine University in St. Paul where she works, many found it surprising.

"It was a very big eye opener for them," she said.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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