When macular degeneration started affecting his eyesight at age 75, making it difficult to read students' papers, Sherman Tatz decided it was time to retire as chairman of the Department of Psychology at LIU Post.
Leaving a job he loved wasn't easy. But giving up driving was in some ways more difficult, so it was another five years before he decided he would no longer get behind the wheel. To compensate for poorer vision, Tatz says, he drove more slowly, traveled only familiar routes and avoided driving in heavy traffic.
"I was reluctant to give up the independence of driving," Tatz, now 87, explains. "But at some point I recognized it's not fair to the public for me to drive. When I was 80, I voluntarily took my car off the road, but I let it sit in the driveway for several months before I found a buyer for it. I let driving go, very gradually."
Tatz's realization that he needed to give up his car keys wasn't easy for him to accept at first, but it's a challenge many of us will face as we age, and most of us will do it with reluctance.
When older drivers voluntarily give up that part of their life, it's often the result of an auto accident, says Robert Sinclair, manager of media relations for the AAA Foundation in Garden City. Largely it's a decision encouraged by adult children or recommended by physicians. Sometimes the state Department of Motor Vehicles suspends the license, Sinclair says.
Until then, most drivers are resistant to change, says Peter Kanaris, a clinical psychologist based in Smithtown who specializes in geriatrics. "The car represents independence, even more so on Long Island, where very often you have to get in the car just to get a container of milk. So the one thing we want to hold on to is that steering wheel. It's a denial of aging."
Tatz was no different. The thought of losing independence weighed heavily. But when he finally decided to stop driving for good, he was more fortunate than many older Long Islanders. He lives within walking distance of Huntington's downtown area, where most of his doctors are located, and there's also easy access to stores and restaurants.
"At first, I missed the ability to hop in the car and go where I wanted," Tatz says. "The idea of being dependent on my daughter and friends was hard. Giving up driving was part of a more general process of losing the ability to do things for myself."
For most of his transportation needs, he relied on his daughter Barbara Yanuck, 49, of Huntington. "My dad was really proactive," Yanuck recalls. "I don't think I realized how bad the situation was until he took himself off the road, but I was relieved. . . . It does mean that I drove him to many of his appointments. But he made them around my schedule so I could be home when my kids got home from school. He also arranged to take cabs, senior buses and to continue to walk to other appointments." An aide now helps Tatz with paperwork and drives him where he needs to go.
As we age, Sinclair says, many of us may see changes in our flexibility, vision and memory that can impair our safety behind the wheel. Here are some steps to help keep you driving safely.
Assess your skills
Start with a full checkup, including vision, advises Nina Karl, director of information services for the Nassau County Office for the Aging in Uniondale. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to learn how your medications may impact your driving. "Laws have changed and cars have, too, since most of us got our licenses, so taking a refresher course [at a driving school] is a great way to assess and improve your skills," she advises.
AAA has programs you can use to gauge your cognitive and physical skills. For instance, "Drivers 65 Plus: Check Your Own Performance" is an online self-assessment tool at bit.ly/qPo1jK that measures functional abilities. It provides safety suggestions based on your answers, such as if you're having difficulty handling intersections or forgetting to buckle up.
The AAA traffic safety staff presents Senior Safety Seminars at community centers or other groups. Call 516-873-2364, Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Adapt gradually, says AARP spokeswoman Nancy Thompson. "Safe driving is a health issue, so make adjustments, like not driving in bad weather or at night and having an alternate route planned for traffic."
Assess your car
Drive the car with the best features for your current situation. Sinclair says adjustable brakes and gas pedals, tilted steering wheels and adjustable seats can help with vision or range-of-motion issues. Position mirrors, seats and brakes for safety and control.
AAA holds free "Car Fit" programs with trained counselors who show drivers how to adjust their vehicles. Call 516-873-2364 for upcoming events.
If you can afford a private consultation, you can combine your physical assessment with that of your car through the Adapted Driver Training Program of Abilities Inc., in Albertson. Senior coordinator Edward Colverd works with an occupational therapist to provide evaluations, training and vehicle modification consulting. The session, which is recommended by the Nassau County Office for the Aging, is $450. Call 516-465-1506. If you're buying a new car, the AAA Smart Features for Mature Drivers, online at bit.ly/4wT0Kp, lists features to look for, like wide-angle mirrors to compensate for limited range of motion.
Assess your parents
If you're concerned about older parents driving, here are strategies to help them make the transition.
Adult children are often the first to notice that their parents' driving skills have declined, but most don't want to initiate "the talk." Sinclair recommends that adult children ask their parent to take them for a drive to check for any changes every six months. "Look for signs of risky behavior, like difficulty merging on the highway or seeming to ignore or miss traffic signs," he says. "Another concern should include minor fender benders on a regular basis."
If what you see concerns you, Thompson of AARP says, "It's not about taking their keys away, but about making the decision to get them to hang up their keys. It has to be a conversation, not a battle of wills."
To that end, avoid a showdown by having a conversation before they demonstrate a driving problem, says Kanaris. "Take the collaborative approach of trying to figure it out together. Introduce the idea that sometime in the future, 'How will you know when it's time to stop driving?' "
Once parents can entertain the concept, ask what they can do now to drive more safely. "And prepare yourself that you may just have to be the 'bad' son or daughter for a while and take the keys," psychologist Kanaris says.
Not all parents will be like Tatz and act reasonably if there's a problem. If your parent is a real danger on the road but won't give up driving, you may need to take drastic measures, like reporting mom or dad to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Spokesman Nick Cantiello says a physician, police officer or concerned citizen can file forms with the DMV's Medical Review Unit requesting that the senior's ability to maintain a driver's license be reviewed. After an interview, it may be determined that the driver needs to be retested. A failed test, or failure to appear for an interview and test, would result in suspension of the senior's license.
One of the biggest problems about not driving on Long Island is the lack of accessible public transportation. Kanaris recommends planning alternatives so your parent doesn't feel stranded.
"Get help from your siblings, a neighbor and your church, and recognize that there will be an adjustment period," he says. Look into other alternatives (see box) or a car service -- which could be cheaper than keeping a car on the road.
Plan ahead for how the new nondriver will get goods and services. "More pharmacies and supermarkets deliver. You can shop or choose doctors closer to home," Kanaris says. "Sometimes relocation goes along with giving up the keys . . . planned and assisted living communities offer transportation."
Holly Rhodes-Teague, director of Suffolk County Office for the Aging in Hauppauge, says, "It becomes more of a scheduling issue to make doctor appointments around buses, but you can adjust to it. The point is that there are alternate ways of transportation [other] than your car, once you start to look for them.