Seniors face tough decision of when to stop driving

In 2002, Thomas Coulthard knew the time had come to stop driving because of the weakness in his legs.

Coulthard, now 82, is one of many senior citizens faced with the tough decision of when they should give up their keys.

While most resist or fight the inevitable, Coulthard made the decision because he was no longer capable of driving.

He said his knees are bone to bone, and he no longer is able to walk without the aid of a walker. Coulthard now relies on his wife, Lily, 64, to drive him around.

"You were born, and you get to the point where your eyes, reflexes and mind force you to give up your driving privileges," he said. "If I still drove, I would be a menace on the highway with my legs."

In his state of mind, it was a pretty easy decision to stop driving his four-wheel-drive truck that is still parked at his home in Fallon.

"If it was not for Lil, I would be in a bind," he said. "She takes me for my haircuts and to church."

In the rare instances when his wife is unavailable, Coulthard relies on Churchill Area Regional Transportation.

He can get a ride to Reno for $5, and having a daughter nearby also helps.

"If I need to be at a doctor's office, I can call C.A.R.T. a week ahead of time, and I will be there," he said.

Coulthard told his therapist several years ago his goal was to be able to drive his truck again, and he has known for years this will never happen.

"Driving is a macho thing for a man, especially if you have a four-wheel drive under your butt," he said. "Psychologically, it is tough to give up a driver's license. It is a thrill to be independent, and when you give up that driver's license, you give up your independence. If I could walk, I could drive."

Friends on occasion visit and drive him places in his truck.

Coulthard knows how fortunate he is that his wife can still drive and tries to arrange appointments around her schedule.

Lily, his wife, thinks baby boomers need to realize that it is almost a certainty - if they live long enough - that they will no longer be able to drive.

"Will they be ready for it?" she asked before answering, "Not really."

Coulthard remembers his mother driving when she shouldn't have been, mentioning she often did not stop for stop signs.

He and his wife were trying to decide how to convince her not to drive, but they knew it would not be easy.

Fate intervened when she suffered a heart attack and a stroke, and she realized years before she died that she could no longer operate a motor vehicle safely.

An aging population

The 2000 census reported there were about 2,800 Churchill County residents, 4,700 Lyon County residents and 450 Storey County residents who were 65 or older.

Linda Hendrickson, director of the Churchill County Senior Center, said a lot of older people are moving to the county because it is where they want to retire and added people never want to admit they no longer should be driving.

"They very seldom give up their car keys," she said. "It is the last independence in their lives. Accepting the fact they no longer can drive means they are closer to the end of their lives."

While it is a traumatic experience for most, the majority of seniors learn to adapt in some form after realizing there are other ways to travel from place to place.

Many seniors rely on public transportation to get around.

When an older person becomes unsafe when driving, family and friends usually will take the proper steps to convince him or her to not drive.

Hendrickson said there are many elderly drivers, like Coulthard, who realize the time has come to turn in their car keys.

Many times an elderly driver will be stopped by police, who will order the person to be tested again by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

This action often results in a person's driver's license being revoked.

Hendrickson thinks elderly drivers, once it is confirmed that they should not be driving, should accept the fact.

There are younger people, she said, who would continue driving if their driving privileges were ever suspended or revoked.

A forced decision

Tom Jacobs, public information officer for the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, said there is no law preventing people from driving once they reach a certain age.

He said a technician with good cause can ask any person to be re-tested at any time and if a person is 71 or older and wants to renew his or her license by mail, proof of health certified by a physician must be provided as well as passing mark on the vision test.

Jacobs said any physician, law enforcement officer or family member can ask for an elderly person to be re-tested.

The DMV does not place any restrictions on when and where older drivers can operate a vehicle.

"Older people have the tendency to restrict themselves," Jacobs said, adding he knows a few elderly people who no longer drive on freeways or highways.

Questions needing to be asked, he said include whether there are friends and family who can drive them to places, or if a bus service is available.

Lily Coulthard said it would be better for a person's self-esteem if he or she voluntarily gave up driving rather than being forced to by authorities.

She said older people need to look at the complete picture when realizing they should no longer be driving.


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