Medical Changes: There is nothing so stable as change

Couple sitting at a kitchen table

“Your dad has been feeling dizzy, we’re going to the hospital to get checked out.” Ellen remembers how the simple call from her mom last year snowballed into her 71-year-old father going from the “quick” emergency room visit at the community hospital to an ambulance ride to the bigger hospital downtown. He had complained that he didn’t really need to go. Ellen was glad he did. He’d had a stroke. He would also need surgery on his carotid artery. The artery was almost completely blocked by what the doctors called plaque buildup, meaning not enough blood was getting through to his brain.

Fortunately for Ellen, her mom, and the rest of their family, her dad was able to get the surgery within the week and had no lasting effects from the stroke or the surgery. Unfortunately for her dad, he wasn’t able to drive for a few months while he recovered. He loved his car and he loved to drive it. Her mom was a good sport as an on-call taxi driver shuttling him to the various follow-up appointments and his team of doctors. His car stayed parked in the garage.

The health changes in our lives aren’t always so dramatic, but they are important to keep track of, particularly as we age. While a need to change driving habits should never be based on age alone, there may be other age-related changes in cognitive, visual, and physical function that may cause safety concerns.

These changes can be scary, but knowing how age-related changes affect driving safety and the adjustments you can make to account for the changes helps everyone stay safer on the roads.

For Ellen’s father, his big changes in health meant waiting before he could be out driving on the roads again. Ellen’s mother, on the other hand, had started to notice she was having trouble seeing when driving at night.

Ellen’s mother went to the doctor to test her vision and discuss the issues she was having. Her mother’s doctor prescribed special glasses she now wears for nighttime driving, but her mother also adjusted her driving habits to limit driving at night.

What are some things you can do?

There are some important steps we can take as we age to stay safer on the road:

  • Try to drive during daylight and in good weather.
  • If you have to drive at night, use well-lit routes.
  • Leave more space between you and the car in front of you.
  • Plan your route ahead of time.
  • Always wear your seatbelt.
  • Limit distractions.
  • Never drive if you do not feel well, or are stressed or tired.
  • Stay physically active.
  • Take care of your eyes and ears.
    • Drivers over age 50 should get their hearing checked every three years
    • Drivers age 65 and older should get their eyes checked at least once a year.

If you or someone in your life notice changes in your vision, physical fitness, attention, and reaction times, be sure to contact your doctor or other healthcare provider. At your doctor visits, be sure to ask your doctor how changes in medical conditions or medications might impact your driving safety.

Depending on your discussion with your doctor, he or she may refer you to a medical specialist or driving rehabilitation specialist who are medical professionals with special training in rehabilitation driving. Driving rehabilitation specialists are specifically trained to identify steps to take now to improve safety on the road, how drivers might modify their vehicles for increased safety, and advise when an older driver might want to stop driving. Use the following questions and think about your responses to them as you start your transportation assessments and planning process.

  • Have you had some incidents of forgetfulness or getting lost while driving?
  • Have you experienced a significant change in your health or started taking new medications?
  • Do you feel uncomfortable, stressed, or anxious when driving?
  • Have you experienced or narrowly avoided a crash recently?
  • Are you making mistakes while driving?

If you would like more tools to help you understand if further assessment or planning may be necessary, you can find more about screening and assessment tools on the ChORUS website.

While aging brings on quite a few changes, you can be better prepared for the sudden health changes and the more gradual vision, hearing, or health condition changes with the help of your medical team, your family and friends, and ChORUS.


The story in this blog post is based on true events. The names have been changed to protect the subjects’ identities.