Keeping the keys
Families of elderly face tough questions as folks age past their driving abilities
Every Friday, Mary Finnegan drove from her house in Pea Green to the bowling alley in Montrose.
Though she was 82 and had been diagnosed with dementia, her family didn’t worry about her driving or that she might lose her way. After all, she got herself to the rec center five days a week and came back just fine.
The worst, they thought, would be that she got lost somewhere in town and that she’d be easy to find.
But on the night of July 15, Finnegan left the bowling alley and no one ever saw her alive again.
Now, it appears that a single wrong turn led to her death.
Right in front of the store in Pea Green, construction crews were getting ready to replace a culvert and had put up a detour sign. That one wrong turn led Finnegan on a drive that took her miles from home, through the twisted back roads of Montrose County into a remote area of the Uncompahgre Plateau, where her Mercury Grand Marquis eventually became stuck on a road most four-wheel-drive vehicles would find challenging to negotiate.
Nine days later, searchers found her body, three miles from the car, obscured by thick brush in rugged country. She had driven more than 50 miles from her home, continuing to follow the wrong route set in place by the detour.
“From what we can tell, she got confused and kept driving,” said her son, Ken Finnegan, who lives just a few miles down the road from his parents in Pea Green.
Unfortunately Finnegan is an example of the worst that can happen when the aging population continues to drive instead of giving up the keys. Folks living in some areas of the Western Slope have few options for getting where they want to go if they can’t drive themselves.
According to AAA, seniors are outliving their ability to drive by an average of seven to 10 years. More than half of seniors and adults with disabilities depend on families, friends or volunteers for transportation, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. And more than 25 percent of Coloradans older than 55 consider it “somewhat problematic” to find safe and affordable transportation options, according to a CDOT survey.
The aging population is faced with a tough choice with current transportation options in some rural areas of Colorado — get friends or relatives to give them rides, face isolation, or leave the homes they love.
It’s a problem that will only worsen if more options aren’t created for the aging population in rural areas like Pea Green, as the baby-boomer generation begins to turn 70. By 2025, 25 percent of all drivers in the U.S. will be 65 or older, according to AARP.
Some people continue driving into their 90s without any trouble, but others who are much younger need to retire from driving for physical or mental reasons.
“There is no magic number,” said Jill Wohlgemuth, an occupational therapist who owns Shift To Independence, a driving evaluation and rehabilitation program that helps drivers stay on the road longer with adaptive equipment.
Though there is a steady decline in driving ability after age 50 that accelerates after age 70, Wohlgemuth, who is certified by CarFit, said the physical and mental capacities required to drive safely vary among people as they age, which is why an individual assessment can be useful.
“Because we’re living longer, we’re outliving our driving ability,” she said. “Whether we like it or not, we lose our reaction time, we lose our processing abilities, we lose that range of motion.”
There is a way to extend someone’s driving years in some cases, delaying giving up the keys for a little longer, if it’s a physical issue. Sometimes it’s a matter of extending mirrors to increase visibility, when someone can’t turn their head as much as they used to.
Diabetics who experience neuropathy in their feet, which makes it impossible to feel the pedals, can use hand controls to drive safely. Sometimes a left-foot accelerator pedal is the trick for someone who can’t use their right foot for some reason.
Wohlgemuth has been a driving rehabilitation specialist for more than a decade, and estimated that 60 percent of her clientele is elderly. Most of her referrals come from physicians and family members who want clients evaluated for safe driving. The rest come for her expertise in providing adaptive equipment that will allow their family or friends to continue driving. Sometimes it’s as simple as installing bigger mirrors or hand controls to keep folks driving safely for longer.
Many times, her conversations involve discussing wants versus needs as far as driving is concerned. Maybe they need to get to doctors’ appointments and the grocery store, but they want to drive to Denver if the mood strikes.
“What they don’t want is somebody telling them they can’t,” she said.
Most of her clients are driven by the motivation to remain independent for as long as possible. Although most of her clients come to her as a proactive measure, others engage her services because they’ve been in an accident, or family members are concerned about their driving and need a third party to back them up in encouraging their relatives to retire from driving.
In a three-hour assessment, Wohlgemuth conducts memory, vision and cognitive function tests as well as a ride-along in which she observes the driver. In the end, she’s honest with them about their performance and sometimes has to break the news that it’s time to stop driving. It can be hard to tell someone who has been driving longer than she’s been alive that it’s time to give it up, but “what they forget sometimes is, it’s a privilege, not a right,” she said.
During the assessment, she builds in at least one detour to assure that her client can find the way home from an unfamiliar route. That’s a non-negotiable test that she considers vital for clients to pass.
“If someone’s been lost once, that’s one time too many,” she said. “If they get lost, it’s time to retire from driving, and that’s where the family really needs to be actively involved.”
While the majority of at-fault accidents in Mesa County and within the city of Grand Junction in 2015 were caused by drivers in their 20s, a review of crash data provided by the Colorado State Patrol indicates that there is a greater chance of someone dying in a crash when the at-fault driver was 65 or older.
“The consequences are far greater for the frail and elderly,” she said.
In Colorado, any family member, Division of Motor Vehicle employee, medical professional or law enforcement employee can request a driver be re-tested for a driver’s license.
In 2015, the DMV canceled or denied licenses to 1,204 drivers who were referred for re-testing, according to spokesman Shawn Hollister.
Though she had been diagnosed with dementia at least four years earlier, Mary Finnegan’s family never considered having her re-tested for driving or taking away the keys.
“We knew she had dementia but we thought it wasn’t that bad, or maybe we just hoped it wasn’t that bad,” Ken Finnegan said.
Although he and his brothers discussed their concern about her driving with their father at one point, they never broached the topic with their mother.
They didn’t want to take away her independence, and they lived out in the country, which made it hard for her to get to town where she socialized with others.
She was so active, and didn’t want to end up like her sister, who also suffered from dementia and had a pretty lonely life in rural Oklahoma before she died.
“I think there is a stigma there that you don’t want to tell your parents what to do,” he said. “But we should have done something. We should have known.”
That’s something that haunts Finnegan now.
“It’s a very hard conversation, but I think you have to figure out how to have that,” he said. “Knowing what we know now ...”
During the search for his mother, Finnegan’s friend came out to help search and rescue officials comb 154 square miles of rugged terrain. This friend had recently had a hard conversation with his own mother about driving retirement, which ended with him hiding the keys to prevent her from driving anymore. Finnegan remembers talking about this as they looked for his mom, in remote country that was so wild that the searchers themselves lost each other on occasion.
“It took her a while to get over it and she’s still not happy,” Finnegan said. “But she’s still alive.”