No Car? No Problem
Last updated: November 2023
I grew up without a car. My mother was on her own, working in a garment factory, not making much money and raising a child. We relied on the bus, occasional cab rides, and generous friends. We had to figure out every trip. No jumping in the car to go shopping or to a movie.
At 18, after 2 failed driving tests, I got a license and bought a VW Bug to commute to college. I was free.
Learning to prosper without driving
"Will I still be able to drive?" is one of the first questions I asked after my diagnosis of macular degeneration. Today, 3 years later, I still can, but the truth is that both aging and MD mean a strong possibility of a future without driving.
The reality is that if we live long enough, we’re going to have to learn to survive (and prosper) without driving.
How our driving ability declines with age
Our driving ability, that complex set of skills we are likely to learn as teenagers, starts to decline at about age 35. People learn to compensate as their reaction time slows. According to Katherine Freund, founder and president of Independent Transportation Network in America, it is at about age 75 that these changes of age speed up and overtake the compensation we might have made as a skilled driver.1
We start driving fewer miles; we’re no longer commuting to work. We try to be safer, avoiding snow, rain, night driving, and construction zones. Over the next 10 years, we will become increasingly riskier drivers who need to be thinking about transitioning to the passenger seat.1
Signs we need to stop driving
Freund says there are some cues that can signal when someone should stop driving. I’ve seen how they play out among my friends. For example, one is getting lost when we are driving. One close relative of mine was headed for the doctor’s office, got lost, and had to be rescued. He never drove again.1
Another cue is finding that merging into traffic on the interstate takes longer. At age 86, another friend of mine no longer drives on the interstate; too many cars going too fast, she says.1
Mistaking the gas pedal for the brake is another cue. A friend with serious neuropathy in both feet stopped driving when he could no longer feel the difference between the gas pedal and the brake.1
Staying aware of our vision changes as older adults
Macular degeneration does not automatically make us unsafe drivers. We need to be aware of all our age-related vision changes.
According to the American Optometric Association, some age-related vision changes that can affect older adults and their driving include:2
- Not being able to see road signs as clearly
- Difficulty seeing objects up close, like the car instrument panel or road maps
- Difficulty judging distances and speed
- Changes in color perception
- Problems seeing in low light or at night
- Difficulty adapting to bright sunlight or glare from headlights
- Experiencing a loss of side vision
Learning to utilize new vehicle safety technologies
Knowing these changes are coming is a first step. I’m also working on minimizing distractions when I drive; that means no cellphone conversations, turning off the radio, and minimizing most conversations while I’m driving. Drive first, eat later.
AARP has a safe driver course to take in person or online. One friend took the course and said it was a great refresher. She particularly liked the introduction to the new technology built into today’s cars. Smart headlights, blind spot warning systems, and drowsy driving alerts can help make you a safer driver if you know how they work.
What happens when you can no longer drive?
Loneliness and isolation can be deadly for people as they age. Getting around town to meet friends, shop, or do all the things we used to when we had our cars is still important in leading a good life. My friend Colin bikes everywhere. Never drove because he could never learn. He also lives in a large city with an excellent public transportation system with both buses and subways. Not everyone can or wants to be Colin.
Some people move to retirement communities that offer a shuttle service. Others choose to relocate to be closer to friends or family.
Aging in place, but not trapped
There are ways to make another option, "aging in place" (staying put), possible. Since the pandemic, there are many more online stories that will deliver your groceries and your prescriptions. Beyond these options, there are door-to-door and arm-to-arm transportation services. The latter means that the driver is trained to help you get to your door and will carry your packages.
The nonprofit Independent Transportation in America (ITA) can help you find services in your community. They have a nationwide database of free, low-cost and market rate providers. You can reach them at their website, www.ridesinsight.org, or call 1-855-607-4337. If there are no services in your community, the ITA will help you start one. Really.3
Having low vision and making the decision to stop driving doesn’t mean that you will be chained to your home. There are people who can help.
Do you have eye healthy recipes you like to make for the holidays?