(This story was first published in the July 18, 2013 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By Katy Savage
Alden Fiertz is slowly losing peripheral vision in his left eye.
The 82-year-old South Woodstock resident lives about five miles from any grocery store or market. In a town with no taxis and no public transportation, he has to drive everyday. Because of the impairment, he’s decided not to drive at night and he limits his driving distances. But hanging up his keys isn’t an option.
To Fiertz, driving means freedom.
“You can’t have a productive life if you’re several miles away from town,” Fiertz said. “You have to drive all the time. That’s one of Woodstock’s shortcomings.”
Like so many other old people, the decision to stop driving isn’t easy.
“(Elderly) fear that they’ll be stranded in isolation,” said Wayne Cook, a volunteer from AARP who gave a presentation at the Thompson Senior Center in Woodstock last week.
Elderly have delayed responses and less flexibility — and they easily confuse gas and break pedals behind the wheel and have difficulty staying in their own lane while driving, Cook said.
Those who don’t drive may feel depressed, angry or socially isolated. They fear not driving anymore, but so do family members.
“The family members now have to take them to doctors appointments, the dentist, the grocery store, wherever they have to go,” Cook said.
Fiertz said he would have to move if he had to stop driving.
• Fifty percent of elderly want their spouse to tell them when they should stop driving and 15 percent of elders don’t want to hear it from their adult children.
Helen Leonard, 89, has driven across the country three times and recently she drove more than 100 miles once a month to visit family in Massachusetts.
Most of her family has died, but remaining family and friends have started questioning her driving.
“I have friends that have told me, ‘Helen, you shouldn’t be driving to Massachusetts all by yourself,’” Leonard said. “I have done it so often, I don’t feel fearful.”
Leonard learned to drive in the 1940s from her late husband.
“(Driving) is just something I’ve always done,” she said. “I don’t find it difficult — yet.”
Not driving for Leonard would mean giving up her independence.
“When you’re alone you have to think differently,” Leonard said. “You can’t rely on people continually.”
There are no hard-and-fast rules for when someone should stop driving, but Cook said there are warning signs.
“When you’re running into stop signs and hitting the curb, or hitting the mailbox, maybe you need to think about giving your keys up,” Cook said.
Leonard said when she stops driving, she’ll move to the Homestead, a senior community.
“I think I’ll know (when it’s time to stop driving),” she said. “There will come a day.”
• The Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles may require a driving reexamination based on a recommendation from a family member, physical technician or law enforcement. The DMV can require driving from sunrise to sunset only, prohibit driving during rush hour, restrict the geographical area in which a person is permitted to drive and prohibit freeway driving.
Marie Willis, 91, of Woodstock has been considering hanging up her keys for some time.
“I’ve tried to work out how I’m going to get here and there,” she said. “I’m not going to surrender until I get it all sorted out.”
Willis said some people have tried to forcibly tell her to stop driving.
“They have to put themselves in my shoes before they consider saying anything,” Willis said. “They themselves have to be in that position to feel it.”
People 85 years of age and older are nine times more likely to die in a car crash than drivers 25-69 years old.
“I don’t want to cause any accident, injury or kill someone,” Willis said. “I hear those things and think that could happen and I’m aware I wasn’t as sharp as I was when I was a teenager. I don’t think the day I stop driving will be a shock.”
To subscribe to an electronic edition of the Vermont Standard and get your local news every Wednesday night at 8 p.m. click here. – Only $25/year