Seniors and Driving: Effects on Social Isolation and Health

A recent study has found that elderly drivers who stop driving and lack transportation risk becoming socially isolated, which can lead to a decline in their physical and mental health. The study was performed by Teja Pristavec, a sociology researcher at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. The study was published online in May 2016 in The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences (available here).

Compared to seniors who had stopped driving, Pristavec found that frequent drivers are more likely to visit friends and family, to participate in social outings and to attend religious services or organized group activities. But when they lost the ability to drive and had no transportation alternatives, their participation in social activities declined precipitously.

Older adults who remain socially active experience better health, have lower mortality risk and lower rates of depression, dementia and other cognitive impairments. They also have greater life satisfaction and self-esteem.

As people become older, they may start limiting their driving activities. They drive less frequently and over shorter distances.  They adapt their speed and stay on familiar roads during daylight hours.

Sometimes there are safety issues involved with an older driver.  They may start adjusting their driving to compensate for declining physical or mental abilities.  They may start having accidents or there may be unexplained dents in their car. They may become disoriented or have trouble following directions.  At some point, it may be time to suggest that the senior stop driving.

Seniors who are able to receive rides from family members, friends and caregivers may be able to avoid some of the isolation that comes from not being able to drive.  Unfortunately, the senior may not have anyone who is willing or able to provide transportation for them.  Further, seniors are often reluctant to ask for rides because they fear being a burden to others.   For some, public transportation may the a better answer if it is available.

In addition to the lack of ability to drive, social activities, such as going to the movies or out to lunch or dinner, may become too expensive for the senior.  This may lead to further social isolation.

Pristovec’s study shows that seniors need transportation options to driving to avoid social isolation and the resulting decline in their physical and mental health.  Alternative transportation will also help avoid seniors risking their safety (and the safety of others) by continuing to drive past the time they should be driving.