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End of the Road: Driving in Old Age | Part III

Florida ensures older drivers see a clear path

Last of three articles

DUNEDIN

Miriam Feldman lowered herself into the blue vinyl chair at her eye doctor's office.

In her alligator print purse, she carried a form from the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. She needed her doctor to sign it if she was going to keep driving her beige Lincoln Town Car.

Feldman is 82. Once you turn 80, the state requires you to renew your driver's license every six years and get your eyes checked when you do. Some people think this is too long between tests. But every year about 2,100 seniors in Florida give up their license because they either fail a vision test or choose not to take one. That includes 91 people in Hillsborough and 132 in Pinellas.

Now, in August, it was Feldman's turn.

She was worried about the eye test, with good reason. She has macular degeneration in her right eye and can't see out of it at all. She recently had cataract surgery on her left eye.

Feldman lives a solitary life in a two-bedroom condo overlooking the water in Dunedin. She has no family here. She often drives to Red Lobster and other restaurants and eats alone.

Her car connects her to the rest of her world — the doctor, the library, the grocery store. What would she do without it?

"Well, let's see if you're seeing with that eye," said a technician, handing her a small paddle to hold in front of her glasses.

A massive E, the size of a toaster, popped up on the wall in front of Feldman. She squinted, twisted her head this way and that.

"I don't see a thing," she said, grimacing. "Oh God!"

• • •

Even Feldman had doubts about whether she should be driving. She could see street signs but sometimes she couldn't tell what was on them. This made her uncomfortable. She had also gotten two tickets 52 days apart in 2006 — one for driving 28 mph in a 15 mph school zone and another for violating the right of way.

But then, she'd think about all she would lose if she gave up her license.

She looked forward to going to Red Lobster twice a week, even though she always ate her fish sandwich by herself at the bar. If she didn't have a car she could still walk to the grocery store, but it would be hard to haul her soda bottles back by herself. She'd never get to the library.

She had been driving for 66 years — ever since she met her husband-to-be in the Bronx when she was 16 years old. They had no children and moved to Florida 22 years ago.

"My husband is dead," she said one day recently, pointing out a photo of a handsome middle-aged man with gray hair and eyes. They were married 58 years. "His family is dead. I had a few friends and they're dead. Everybody is dead."

She had met someone else after her husband passed away, but then he died, too.

Feldman had always made a home for someone. Now she struggled to find ways to occupy her time. She didn't like watching TV, and she had lost interest in reading.

"Being alone, it's hard," she said. "And I do like being with people."

• • •

Inside the Eye Institute of West Florida, Feldman waited patiently for her doctor.

Wrinkles etch her face like cracked glass and she has trouble hearing. She wore shorts and high heels, one thin leg folded over another.

She turned to the doctor's medical diploma on the wall next to her.

"The University of Minnesota. How come I can read that?" she wondered.

Dr. Douglas G. Johnson entered, his technician following closely on his heels.

"I'm wondering why I can't see," Feldman said.

"I understand that," he replied, sitting down on his stool.

He shined a light in her eye, asked her if she felt any pain from her cataract surgery. She said no, but asked him to speak up.

Then he lowered the phoroptor in front of her eyes and began flipping lenses while asking her to read the letters.

"Do you see that real good?" he asked.

"P-H-T-C," she read. "D-A-D-F."

"Is the first clearer or the second?" he asked.

The lenses clicked as he slid them back and forth and then she said, "the first one."

Johnson flipped lenses for the better part of 10 minutes. Then he asked her to read the smallest row.

"F-Z ... " She paused. "B-D,"

"Excellent," he said, pulling back. "According to the license bureau, they want you to read this so you just skidded by."

He explained that Feldman had 20/400 vision in her right eye. Her left eye was 20/200. So even though she couldn't see at all with her right eye, her other eye — the one that had been operated on — could be corrected to make up for the blind eye. With new glasses, she would be able to see 20/40.

"I can fill out that form for you and keep the government happy for a few more years," Johnson said.

Feldman's brown eyes lit up. She looked relieved.

How many more years? she asked.

Six. She had six more years until her next test. She'd be 88 then.

"You think I'll last that long?" she asked.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

Need help?

In Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Hillsborough counties, call the Senior Helpline at 1-800-96-ELDER (1-800-963-5337).

How to start the discussion

Family members trying to start the discussion about whether an older family member should quit driving should start well before there is a problem. Here are some conversation openers:

• "Health and safety first."

When driving is placed within the larger context of other safety concerns, it may take the personal edge off the conversation.

• "Driving isn't what it used to be."

Family members of any age can find common ground by talking about stressful road conditions. Restricting driving in order to compensate for worsening driving conditions makes sense for all drivers.

• "Did you hear about the car accident in the news today?"

Use news reports to inform – not scare – older persons. Headline news about accidents that involve older and younger drivers can provide an opportunity to explore your family member's attitudes about unfit drivers and the question of who can help them decide when to relinquish the keys.

• "How did granddad stop driving?"

This opener may provide an opportunity to reveal personal feelings about driving and family intervention.

Some high-risk older drivers will not respond to constructive conversation. Although these may seem like extreme measures, you may have to:

• Disable the car.

• File down the keys.

• Take away the car.

• Cancel the vehicle registration.

• Prevent the older driver from renewing his or her driver's license.

Some older drivers, however, find ways to work around these actions, such as calling a mechanic and having a disabled car repaired. And, remember: Drivers may continue to drive without a driver's license, car registration or insurance coverage.

If you have not yet done so, speak with the high-risk older driver's doctor or schedule a formal driving assessment.

Source: Hartford Financial Group Services Inc.

Florida ensures older drivers see a clear path 11/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 24, 2009 7:21am]
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