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Driving into the twilight years; it ain't easy giving up the car keys for good

Published 1:07 am, Friday, January 29, 2010
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Two calls came in to police headquarters in Fairfield Tuesday afternoon, reporting that a Honda Civic was driving up and down Reef Road -- near the beach -- weaving wildly across the width of the street. Police traced the license plate to a nearby home. An officer showed up there and found the car parked in the garage.

The officer knocked on the door.

A 96-year-old man answered. The man appeared to be completely confused, the officer wrote in his report. The man's clothes were reportedly tattered and he wore two different shoes. Asked if he had been driving on Reef Road earlier, the man said he couldn't remember. He didn't know what day it was, the report said. He couldn't recall the name of the president.

Police were able to contact the man's son who lives in California. The son said that his father has no family in the area, according to the report. He said his father has been confused for the past six months and that he shouldn't be driving. He asked the cops to impound the car.

The cops didn't impound the car, but they did seize the man's keys and driver's license.

The incident, which fortunately occurred without injury, marked the end to a situation that, inevitably, all of us face. As we age, our ability to drive safely deteriorates. At some point, we have to give up driving altogether. Determining how and when, though, is no easy task.

"Many people reduce their driving in stages," said Maybeth Wirz, program coordinator at Westport's senior services office. "They'll stop driving at night, or in bad weather, or on the thruway. It's often a responsible thing to do. But some don't. And that's a particularly scary thing for the person's family."

It's also dangerous to everyone else on the road.

One study, cited by the state's Department of Social Services, states that our nighttime vision can weaken perceptibly by the time we reach 40. By 60, the department's pamphlet said, we need three times more light to drive safely at night than we do when we're 20. Physical and mental ailments can slow down reaction time, the pamphlet continued. And one out of three senior citizens has suffered some degree of hearing loss.

But people age at different rates. And their various faculties weaken at different speeds, too. Moreover, giving up the keys can be a terrible blow to one's independence. Fortunately, there are alternatives for seniors to driving on their own. And more options are on their way.

"Driving is one of the last vestiges of freedom for many senior citizens," said Fairfield's police spokesman, Sgt. James Perez. At traffic stops and accidents, Perez said, officers have to make quick assessments of a senior driver's capabilities. They observe the driver's awareness, appearance and ability to handle paperwork. They look for large amounts of prescription medicine from different doctors. They note the driver's degree of coordination.

"We understand that for many senior citizens driving is one of their last privileges," Perez said. "We take this seriously. We're not just going to take someone's license away because they're a senior citizen, but some circumstances do warrant that we take it."

If an officer chooses to, he or she has the right to confiscate a license and forward it to the Department of Motor Vehicle's (DMV) commissioner's office. Doing so begins a process that can lead to the license being outright revoked or reinstated on a limited basis.

That decision comes from DMV's Medical Review Division, which includes an advisory board that reviews pertinent medical records, optometrists and physicians who specialize in different conditions. The applicant undergoes a review and then must pass an on-the-road skills test.

If successful, the applicant receives a limited license that allows him or her to carry out daily tasks "without hardship" while helping maintain [his] self-respect, dignity and mobility," a pamphlet for the state's social services department said. It added: "In issuing a limited license, the DMV also takes into consideration the safety of other highway users."

Not everyone will pass. This is where local organizations can help.

In Tuesday's case, police completed an outreach referral form and turned it over to Fairfield's Human and Social Services Department, located at 100 Mona Terrace in that town. That office will send a social worker to the man's house -- as it does with every such case -- to determine his specific areas of need. In some cases, that will simply mean help in transitioning to post-driving life.

"The social worker does not go in as a bully, but to solve a problem," said Hank Steffens, dispatcher at the Fairfield Senior Center. "Most people know they have a driving problem but don't want to give it up. The social worker has to convince them. Most of the time, there are good results."

Seniors in this town have several options, Wirz said. Some hire drivers and others rely on friends and family. But they can also use one of three services provided by the Norwalk Transit District Coastal Link. The service's buses run up and down the Post Road, linking Westport with neighboring towns along the shore. A second provides door-to-door service anywhere in town for just $2.25 a ride when one buys books of 10 tickets at once. The service's town-to-town option widens the door-to-door rides into New Canaan, Wilton and Norwalk, costing two tickets to cross a town border and three tickets to cross two borders.

"Project Go" works through Norwalk Transit to provide one free ride a week to low-income residents who qualify. And RSVP of Norwalk gives free medical transportation as a volunteer service, but it isn't wheelchair accessible. More information can be found at www.norwalktransit.com/index.asp and www.rsvpswct.org.

Soon, there will be a new option. This fall, a national nonprofit organization, ITNAmerica, will open shop in this part of Fairfield County. The local outfit, which will be called ITN Coastal CT, will feature both volunteer and paid drivers who will be available for driving seniors to appointments, to stores, to friends and family or anywhere else, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"The idea of this is to replicate everything about having a car in the driveway," Leslie Wolfe, the program's director, said.

Currently, the organization is raising funds. It hopes to ensure the option will be available for years to come, Wolfe said. This summer, it will operate in a limited capacity as it works out scheduling and kinks. To get involved, visit www.itncoastalct.org.

Typically, senior citizens keep their licenses well beyond the point they should, Wolfe said. On average, men live just six more years after they do stop driving and women generally live just 10 more years.

"If they would have given up their license earlier, that number would go up," Wolfe said.