Ray Bissonnette knows all about the issue of seniors and driving, and when it’s time to give up your license.
In the 1990s, he and his family had to deal with their mother, as her ability to drive safely eroded as she got older.
“In her 40-odd years of driving, she had never been involved in an accident, nor had she received any traffic violations,” Bissonnette said. “Driving her own vehicle gave her the freedom to come and go as she pleased.”
But as she approached 80, she began to confide in them that “she thought the traffic was getting very fast.” And so, she decided to give up her license, and the family worked to ensure she was still able to maintain her independence and enjoy life up until the end.
“This was her decision on her own,” he said. “She did it on her terms.”
The issue of older people and driving safety was front and centre Jan. 17 at a press conference at Huntington University. Gathered were representatives of government, police, education and health care, all of whom are collaborating to deal with a growing issue: when is it time for seniors to stop driving, and what is the best way for families to handle it.
The NorthEast Dementia Coalition is a collection of agencies dedicated to co-ordinating a response to the issue on a number of fronts. Through a $60,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the coalition has hired a program co-ordinator and created two education pamphlets. One deals with safe driving tips for older drivers, the other on warning signs to look for in an older loved one who may be finding it harder and harder to drive.
“As you may know, the percentage of our population aged 65 and older is projected to double by the year 2036,” said Suzette Gauthier, grant review team member with the Trillium Foundation. “The foundation looks at this as a long-term investment in the long-term health of our community, and not just in our more experienced members.”
Const. Linda Burns, the senior/vulnerable adult liaison officer with Greater Sudbury Police, said family and friends of older drivers are put in a heartbreaking position when they realize it may be time to take them off the road. She told story of her grandfather, who was in his 90s when her family had to confront him over concerns about his driving.
“He was never a good driver to begin with,” Burns said. “But as he aged, and the dementia was kicking in, he became a real hazard on the road.
“He said to us, 'There’s nothing wrong with my driving.’ Well, of course he didn’t think anything was wrong.”
And that’s the biggest problem people face, she said. People with dementia don’t realize they have become dangerous drivers. People who have concerns can call her, she said, and she’ll make a low-key visit to the home. When she’s contacted by a concerned family, she visits the house in plainclothes in an unmarked car so she won’t embarrass the family or the older adult.
“I get calls every day from people who say, ‘My neighbour shouldn’t be driving, but I don’t want to offend him,’ ” Burns said. “Family members call and say, ‘My dad shouldn’t be driving. What should we do?’ ”
One family went as far as disabling his vehicle so their father couldn’t take it out. So he had it towed and repaired almost every day.
“These are the things that prompted this initiative. But it’s not intended in any way shape or form to be punitive. It’s proactive, and it’s aimed at keeping your loved ones safe.
“We’re not out there laying charges. This is an intervention-type initiative ... If they can’t protect themselves, then maybe we can help.”
Insp. Mark Andrews, who’s with the OPP North East Region, said the issue of older drivers is a growing problem. In 2011, 38 per cent of fatal crashes involved people over the age of 55. In 2012, it was more than 30 per cent. If you add in crashes that result in injury or property damage, the percentage is even higher.
“So far in 2013, we’ve have two people killed in collisions,” Andrews said. “One was 52, the other was 80.”
He’s aware of one woman who, despite being in her 90s and without a valid driver’s license, continued to drive. It finally caught up with her, and she was involved in a serious but non-life threatening crash.
“When we questioned her, she said ‘Everybody knows I turn there.’ She had turned right in front of a car. She didn’t see it.”
So it’s vital that families have the tough conversation with their older loved ones about their driving, and that they know what to look for. It’s going to be even more important as the seniors population surges over the next 20 years or so.
“The reality is, we all age,” he said. “Our vision gets poorer, our reflexes slow down, and some of us develop dementia.
“We have to have those tough discussions with our family members. The medical profession must make those difficult choices.”
Lorraine Leblanc, executive director of the Alzheimer Society, Sudbury/Manitoulin, said the safe driving project is a vital part of the effort to keep roads safe. The dementia network has partnerships with Huntington, Greater Sudbury Police, the OPP, Sudbury Rainbow Crime Stoppers, North Bay Regional Health Centre, Science North, and Alzheimer Societies in the northeast.
“Together, this coalition is working together to keep older adults safe on the road, through an integrated approach,” Leblanc said. “Since we received this grant, the coalition has expanded the Crime Stoppers tips line to individuals concerned with road safety.”
They’ve also developed a questionnaire for physicians across Ontario that’s related to older adults and driving, and held several workshops to teach people about what signs to look for in older drivers that indicate they’re having trouble handling driving.
Const. Bert Lapalme, police co-ordinator for Sudbury Rainbow Crime Stoppers, said unlike the regular tip line, they’re not looking to arrest anyone when someone calls to report an older driver. He said the public can send them information in a number of ways – phone, email, website or text.
“We know how sensitive it is to call the police on a loved one,” Lapalme said. “We will deal with the individual with kid gloves. We’re not out there to put people behind bars. We’re not going to go around seizing driver’s licenses. There are means of dealing with the issue.”
For his part, Bissonnette said he and his wife are determined to keep their independence and to drive as long as they can safely do so.
“Both my wife and I are retired,” he said. “Now, if the weather conditions are unfavourable or the roads are bad, we stay home, rather than risk accident or injury.”