Why Grandpa Should Keep Driving

Next time you're behind a slow, elderly driver, cut him some slack. He may just be trying to drive away—and stay away—from the nursing home.

A new study finds that seniors who don't drive are four times as likely to enter assisted living centers compared to those who stay behind the wheel.

Researchers interviewed 1,593 people aged 65 to 84 over a 10-year period. All the study subjects lived in the semi-rural town of Salisbury, Md.

"We are not recommending continuation of driving for seniors who are a threat to themselves or others on the road," said study leader Ellen Freeman of the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute. "Instead, we hope that understanding the very real health impact that losing the ability to drive has on seniors will encourage families to plan contingencies to assist elderly members with transportation issues."

Seniors have been known to tenaciously cling to their privilege to drive, even when younger people might think they're a hazard. But Freeman and her colleagues point out that losing the ability to drive can mean significant hardship to seniors in isolated areas.

Simple acts such as going to the drug store, to church, or for a hair appointment become difficult or impossible. And social connections—family, friends, church—are important; other research finds that lonely people are at greater risk for heart problems.

Since people are living longer than ever, the researchers said it is more important to help older people stay independent.

"The average annual cost of nursing home admission is $69,000, and the price tag associated with entry into assisted living is roughly $30,000," Freeman points out. "That's a public policy issue of huge dimensions as our population ages."

The study is detailed in the July issue of the American Journal of Public Health.