By Erica Johnson
Right now, about one in eight Americans are 65 or older. In the next 20 years, that number will grow to one in five. The aging population has forced many children to start considering the difficult question: when are mom and dad too old to drive? It's a question that can strain family relationships and affect the life of the elderly.
At 77, Jean Mathis has been driving for six decades. Growing up in Minnesota on a farm, it's the only way she's ever gotten around. She was once known as the speed demon in her family, but as the years passed, her lead foot has become lighter.
“As you get older, you slow down. I know you do, I'm aware of that and my daughter lets me know if I'm on the freeway that you don't go 40 Mom,” Mathis said.
While Mathis can joke about her abilities behind the wheel today, just a few months ago that wasn't the case. A fall left her confused and with a bump on the head. For almost a month, Mathis spent time in the hospital. That's when her daughter and Mathis' doctor decided it might be a good idea to test to see if she was still safe to get behind the wheel.
“It was a concern of mine, being able to drive again and everything. I was pretty confident because she came to live with us until she was stronger so I could see her everyday,” Mathis’ daughter, Jacqui Schoemaker, said.
Mathis took the Driving Evaluation Program at Sanford.
“I thought, 'Oh, they are going to take my license away. I'm not going to be able to do it.' I didn't know what it's going to be about and so I was really apprehensive,” Mathis said.
Like many individuals at that age, Mathis couldn't bear to think she might not pass.
“If I need to go to the store for something, I can just get into the car and go. I don't have to wait so like I said, it just means freedom. When you can't do it, it's like it's been taken away from you,” Mathis said.
Mathis would soon find out if she would have to give up that freedom. The Sanford Program tests five areas. It includes a vision test, looking at depth perception, measuring reaction time and testing to make sure the person has the physical ability to drive. If all those tests come out ok, they head out on the road for the driving portion.
“They can turn on a car. They can figure out how to use it because that's habit over learned skill but making those quick decisions while they're out on the road is where we get into trouble,” Maria Klamm with the Driving Evaluation Program said.
The warning signs can range from loss of concentration or vision to drowsiness. After any accident, an elderly person should also be checked.
“Also, if you are starting to see some memory issues, having trouble taking medications or paying your bills, that's the time to start thinking maybe they are having trouble driving,” Klamm said.
Klamm says on average, more than 100 people come in every year to have their abilities tested and most have no problem.
“Ninety percent pass. Some pass with limitations. I might ask the state to restrict them to their home town or their county, maybe no nighttime driving,” Klamm said.
That includes Mathis who passed all of the tests with no problem. She says it's not only reassuring for her family but also for herself, and it's helped her come to terms with when that day may come that she may no longer be able to drive.
“I've known for the last several years that when I get old enough to not be able to go without someone tooting at me all the time or cutting real close in front of me, then it's time to quit and say that it,” Mathis said.
By knowing when to put the brakes on, Mathis' mentality is putting her daughter and the rest of her family at ease.
If the elderly individual does not pass the Driving Evaluation Program the first time, they can train and retest. The AARP also offers a class in helping re-educate elderly drivers.
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