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Hanging Up the Car Keys: How Spouses Are Affected

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Linda Bobroff, PhD, RD, LD/N, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

A world of independence and freedom opens to a teenager when he or she gets that first driver’s license. In our car-dependent society, the ability to get behind the wheel and take yourself wherever you need or want to go, whenever, is priceless.

Tough Choices for Older Adults

By the same token, when an older adult needs to reduce or stop driving, it can be devastating. Because the thought of losing their independence is so upsetting, some people put off the decision to give up their car keys far longer than they should. Plenty of us have faced the prospect of having the “You really need to stop driving” discussion with a parent whose poor health, failing eyesight or reflexes, dementia, or other limitations make it dangerous for them to be behind the wheel.

Fortunately, many older people who need to stop driving have spouses or partners who are still able to drive safely. But while it might seem that having a driving spouse would solve most issues, a recent study suggests that driving cessation by one member of a couple can have big effects on them both.

Changes for Husband and Wife Both

In this study, researchers tracked about 1500 older couples’ social, work, and volunteer time and whether or not they were still driving as years passed. They found that stopping driving made it less likely that someone would work, volunteer, and be socially active. Having a spouse who still drove helped somewhat to reduce this effect.

But in the same study, the researchers found that when someone stopped driving, his or her spouse became much more likely to drop out of the paid workforce. The driving spouse also became less likely to volunteer in the community. This appeared to occur because the demands of driving and providing other forms of caregiving for their spouse used up free time, and made it harder to be committed to regularly scheduled events and activities, including paid work. Driving spouses  sometimes left their employment to stay with and care for the nondriver, rather than leaving him or her at home alone.

Ways to Help When Driving Becomes a Concern

While at times it may be very necessary for an older adult to stop driving, there is no question that doing so can have big impacts on people’s lives. There may be options or accommodations available to assist older adults who are experiencing problems behind the wheel. For instance, a doctor can help with medication or vision concerns, and a trained occupational therapist may be able to assist with driver improvement and retraining. Here in Florida, Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialists are available in locations across the state.

If driving cessation is still necessary, community mobility services may be available in your area to help older people maintain independence. But these findings also point to the importance of making our communities more walkable, and investing in public transportation options. By 2024, 25% of all US drivers will be over the age of 65, so this is an issue we can’t afford to ignore. Visit the resources in Further Reading for more options and information for older adults facing issues with driving.

Further Reading:

Choices for Mobility Independence

Find a Ride-Florida

Livable Communities–AARP

Driving and Community Mobility


Photo Credits: Linda & Colin McKie/iStock/Thinkstock