Lost without wheels

Richard Huhn drove his uncle’s flashy 1929 Buick when he was just 12.

Richard Huhn drove his uncle’s flashy 1929 Buick when he was just 12.

Years later, assigned to the Army motor pool in Second World War, he chauffeured officers in France, Belgium and Germany. “I drove down the main street in Paris,” he remembers.

Now 94, his vision severely impaired, Huhn doesn’t drive anymore.

His ophthalmologist insisted he quit about four years ago.

The soft-spoken Ohioan misses being at the wheel, “but there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said.

Dangerous drivers can be young, old or in between, but the problem is commonly associated with the elderly because of the toll aging takes on the senses, physical abilities, and thinking skills that are critical to safe driving. Some give up driving voluntarily; others have to be persuaded, forced or tricked into it.

It’s not a simple matter of safety. When we give up the car, we surrender a lifestyle and a mindset.

“When you look back to when we all got our (driver’s) license, think about the freedom and independence we felt,” said Emilie Owens, vice president of home care options for the Area Office on Aging of Northwestern Ohio. Losing driving privileges, she pointed out, signals the beginning of the end of control over our affairs and decisions.

How will I get to the doctor’s office, grocery store, and church? How will I pick up prescriptions? How can I visit my friends?

“If a person stops driving, their world narrows pretty quickly,” Owens said. “There are many reasons an older person continues to drive, even if they realize they have limitations.”

Families who take away the keys should be ready to step up and help the former driver, Owens said. Switch prescriptions to a pharmacy that delivers, or to the grocery store where they shop so errands can be combined. Contact the Area Office on Aging for information about transportation programs and meal-delivery services. Hire a driver if you can afford it.

Steve Norwood, 56, of Defiance, Ohio, observed that, “The rite of passage of a young person today is getting their license, and for the older person it is losing their license.”

On a nice Saturday afternoon at the end of March, his dad, Don Norwood, 86, left his home in Leipsic, Ohio, to take a drive.

“We got a phone call about 11:30 at night from the Flint, Michigan, police department. They picked him up doing about 25 miles an hour on the expressway,” his son said.

The police thought they were stopping a drunk driver. Instead they found a confused, exhausted senior, still wearing his sunglasses. Later, he was diagnosed with early dementia.

“My sister and I told him we didn’t think he should drive anymore,” said Norwood, who now has the car so his dad won’t have to see it as a constant reminder of something he can no longer do. They told him to think about the welfare of other people too, just as he had taught them when they were growing up.

“Driving for him was his independence. Now he feels like he’s confined to the grounds. He doesn’t have that freedom. . . . I’ll ask him. ‘How are you doing?’ He’ll say, ‘I’m not happy, but I’m content. I really wish I could drive but you won’t let me.’ That will come up every time I visit him.”

Refresher driving courses can help, and may offer the added bonus of an insurance discount.

AARP has a course for motorists age 50 and older that is presented at hospitals and senior centers. (Call 888-227-7669 to find one nearby).

Another way to gauge driver safety is to undergo an evaluation by an occupational therapist, usually at a doctor’s request, although individuals can contact providers directly.

Look for ways to open the conversation naturally: I’ve noticed you have some dents in the car. Or, your friend told me he won’t ride with you anymore.

Ask him: Wouldn’t you feel terrible if you hurt someone? What if you have an accident and you’re sued?

Many already know their skills have eroded, have become apprehensive behind the wheel, and have limited where and when they drive.

“As I grew older, driving was not as pleasant as it used to be,” Huhn acknowledged. “There are more vehicles, more crazies out there.”

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