How To Support Seniors With Car Modifications During COVID-19…

COVID-19 has made life more difficult for just about everyone, but seniors have been particularly impacted. Lack of contact with friends and neighbors, an increased inability to be in public places such as grocery stores and restaurants, and less-available caregivers all make this a hard time for the elderly. In fact, in a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, half of respondents over 65 said that worry and stress over the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health. 

But there are things you can do to make it easier to connect with others and maintain your sense of independence. In this article, we’ll explore ways you can stay mobile by looking at modifications that can be made to your vehicle. Tweaking the way your car operates can get you back behind the wheel, so you can keep in contact with your loved ones and support yourself in a safe manner.

Since many seniors live on a fixed income, we’ve included options that are reasonably priced along with those at the higher end. There are ways you can avoid modifications altogether too, since no one wants to spend money they don’t have to.

The silver lining? Often, modifications that help you drive safer may save you money on your auto insurance. It’s in your insurer’s best interests to keep you safe on the road, so anything that helps you avoid accidents may increase your eligibility for discounts and lower rates.

In This Article:

Before We Discuss Modifications, Let’s Talk Fitness 

Driving safely requires a surprising number of unique muscle movements. Arm and leg stretches when turning or braking as well as upper body twisting to check your blind spot require you to move smoothly, and sometimes, quickly.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found in 2019 that poor physical functions and fatigue were the top reasons why older adults limited their driving. That, in turn, led to a higher instance of depression for those who suddenly found their independence curtailed.

It’s natural to see some decline in your physical abilities as you get older, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do but accept it. Simple stretches and exercises can help you to maintain — or even regain — physical functions so you can drive safely, and much more.

Whether driving, walking, or engaging in other activities, these top five exercises can play a vital role in your strategic plan to stay healthy and independent. Always remember to check with your doctor before starting any exercise program. 

Exercise  Follow These Steps: Benefits
Ankle Rolls Balance yourself by holding on to a stable object with one hand (your car door will work fine!), place your other hand on your waist, and then lift your right leg and rotate your ankle carefully in a clockwise, then counter-clockwise motion. Perform 8-10 rotations in each direction, then switch legs. This can boost circulation to your feet, reduce swelling in your legs, and help combat “Drivers Foot” so you can accelerate/decelerate with ease, and drive longer distances.
Back stretch While sitting, cross your right leg over your left at the knee or ankle. Sitting tall, contract your abdominal muscles and slowly turn your upper body to the right. Hold for 3-5 seconds. Return to your starting position and do one more time before switching to the other side. Repeat set 8 times. This will make your core muscles stronger and more flexible, allowing you to better turn in your seat to check for oncoming traffic.
Chest and shoulder stretch While sitting, lean forward in your chair while grasping the lower back of the chair with your hands. Inhale in this position while lifting your chest, then exhale while leaning forward with hips and shoulders. Repeat 5 times. You’ll increase your upper body flexibility with this exercise, making it easier for you to turn the wheel or reach for the gear shift.
Squats Standing behind a chair that you’ll use for support, position your feet hip-distance apart with toes forward. Bend your knees and hips as if you were going to sit in a chair. If you can, raise both arms forward while holding the position. If you’re shaky, hold onto the chair back instead. Build up to 2 sets of 8 reps each. Squats are a great way to improve lower body strength, flexibility and coordination — all of which are useful when you are behind the wheel.
Side steps Standing on a flat surface with your feet together, step sideways with one foot; then bring the other to join it. Keep your knees slightly bent; your hands can be either on your hips, or, if you feel comfortable enough, held out in front of you. Take 4 steps one way, then reverse. Work up to 8 repetitions. This exercise improves your balance and coordination while helping build endurance. It promotes circulation to your legs and feet, which will help you when your foot is on the brake or gas pedal.

How Can I Modify My Car 

Exercise is one tool in your arsenal of ways to make driving safer and more comfortable — but you have others, too. Minor modifications to your car can have a major impact on your efforts to remain independent. With a growing elder population, manufacturers are increasingly creating innovative products to help people stay on the road well into their later years.

We’ve divided our list of modifications into three groups, depending on your needs: physical mobility, driving assistance, and quality of life/disability assistance. Each type of modification has been designed to address one or more of the challenges that arise when an older adult is driving.

Physical Mobility 

Mobility aids range from simple devices to help you enter or leave your car to complex ramps and docking stations that help those using a wheelchair or walker. For some of these, you’ll need to ask for help from your mechanic for the installation.

Assist bars/assist straps for entering/exiting the car

Grab bars that can be temporarily inserted in the car’s door frame can be found online for less than $25. No installation is required: keep the device, which looks like a small handle, in your glove box or cup holder. Some versions include a strap that allows you to hang the handle from the door frame, others feature a hook that inserts in the side of the door.

Swivel cushions

Padded swivel cushions for the car range from $20-90, and, like grab bars, no installation is required. Just place the cushion on the car seat, where it can provide added mobility to a driver entering or exiting the car.

Turney or valet seat

If you need more turning ability than you can get with a swivel cushion, a turney or valet seat may fit the bill. Valet seats look like regular car seats, but they rotate from the base to face outward. Some even slide out of the car and lower themselves closer to the ground. Valet seats are a high-ticket item that require professional installation, and they cost around $9,000-10,000.

Ramps

There are a broad range of ramp options for cars and vans, from simple, portable solutions that store in the backseat and retail for around $200 to high-end electric models that cost in the thousands of dollars and require professional installation. 

Docking Stations

A docking station is an apparatus that allows those in wheelchairs to secure their chair to the driver or passenger side seat in your vehicle. It’s installed on the floor of the chair after the regular seat is removed. Installation is required both for the vehicle and for the bracket that is installed on the bottom of the chair itself. Docking stations start at around $300.

Driving Assistance 

While mobility aids help you get into and out of your car, there are also devices that help you drive more effectively and safely. 

Hands free navigation assistance

Hands-free navigation has become popular for all drivers — not just older ones. They range from simple cell phone apps like Google Maps to more complex GPS systems such as Garmin’s DriveSmart. Many newer cars come with built-in hands-free navigation systems that are voice-activated and include collision warnings or smartphone notifications. Dashboard systems that are GPS-based retail for roughly $200-300, and require little installation, though if you’re not comfortable with electronics, it’s a good idea to have a tech-savvy friend or relative help you set it up. 

Electronic parking assistance

Electronic parking assistance systems use cameras and lasers to guide the driver in parallel and other types of parking. Some cars — notably Toyota’s Prius and Lexus — feature this technology as one of the car’s benefits. Cost varies by manufacturer: BMW, for example, offers a parking assistance package that can be added to the base 740i for $700.  Mercedes-Benz offers a $1,290 parking assistance package that locates and steers the car while the driver works the gas and brake pedals. 

Bluetooth assistance and navigational support

Bluetooth, the wireless technology that powers cordless computer keyboards, smartphones and gaming consoles is increasingly found in cars as well. Cars like the Subaru CrossTrek let you sync your smartphone with your car, which means you can answer and make phone calls hands-free and get navigational support or find destinations using AI apps such as Siri or Alexa, depending on your phone’s capabilities.

Quality of Life and Disability Assistance 

Larger buttons and extended sun visors (for impaired vision)

Driving with vision impairments can be challenging, but if your eyes aren’t as sharp as they once were, there are cheap ways to make it easier to see and drive safely. Low-cost extended sun visors are available online in the $20-30 range. These are affixed to the existing visor and don’t require professional installation. Large-sized buttons or stickers are available for the starter, radio, cruise control and other dashboard controls, and are easier to spot when driving.

Six way adjustable seats 

Adjustable seats can help with hip pain or make it possible for a wheelchair user to transfer from their chair to a car seat. They can be rotated, raised, lowered and further adjusted for height. Of course, most front car seats allow for some adjustments for comfort and vision control; those designed for the elderly or those with disabilities would need to be professionally installed in place of the vehicle’s original seat. 

Auto-dimming rearview mirror

Auto-dimming mirrors help eliminate the glare of headlights when driving at night. The mirror features sensors that adjust what the driver sees depending on the level of glare coming up behind the car. This minimizes eye strain as well as driver fatigue. Since there is wiring involved, auto-dimming rearview mirrors are best installed by a mechanic or someone with experience in car electrical systems. They retail for $75-200.

Siren detector 

Siren detectors for alerting a hearing impaired driver to the sirens of passing emergency vehicles are still on the drawing board for most auto manufacturers, but Hyundai has announced audio-visual conversion and audio-tactile conversion technology that will be available in the near future. This technology uses artificial intelligence to analyze sound patterns and alert drivers to sirens and horns through steering wheel lights and vibrations.

How Can I Lower My Insurance Rates With Modifications? 

Auto modifications make driving easier, safer, and more comfortable for seniors, plus they can result in lower car insurance premiums. And if you’re on a fixed income or your budget is tight due to the pandemic, what’s not to love about that? Here are 5 of the easiest modifications — in fact, you may already have a car that includes them. 

To see this graphic zoomed in, click here!

What If Modifications Aren’t Enough? 

Aging brings with it many challenges, and driving may be one of these. If you are torn about whether you or a loved one should still be driving, modifications may help in the short term — but they are not a long-term solution. 

Surrendering your license is a hard thing to do, since it leads to reduced independence and a reliance on others for tasks that used to be easy. But if your own safety, or that of others, is at stake, it may be the best choice.

How do you know if it’s time to stop driving? Here are a few questions to ask yourself that may help:

  • Do I often have close calls or near-accidents with other cars?
  • Do I experience routine pain in any body part when I’m driving?
  • Have my family members or friends expressed concern about my driving?
  • Do I have trouble seeing traffic signs, the lines on the road, or other cars, either at night or during the day?
  • Do I take any medications that could impair my driving skills, such as anti-anxiety drugs or sleeping pills?

Giving up your license may be the ultimate act of generosity for others if you think you’re no longer safe on the road. You may actually feel a sense of relief when you no longer need to negotiate traffic or worry about breakdowns.

Of course, you still have places to go, so it is worth taking the time to explore other transportation options in your region. If you live in a city or urban area, you may have a robust train, subway, or bus system that can quickly and inexpensively get you anywhere you need.

You may also find sources of transportation by looking into eldercare options or paratransit in your area. The federal government’s ElderCare Locator is a clearinghouse of information on resources for older citizens, including transportation. Most regional cities and even smaller counties or municipal areas have a Department For Aging office — a Google search can locate the one that’s closest to you, and may lead you to local resources. 

Finally, don’t forget family and friends. While you may not want to bother them, you may find that they’re looking for ways to assist you as you enter this new phase of life. 

The Bottom Line 

You’ve come a long way from your first driving experiences, and knowing when to say good-bye to your driver’s license is a decision that may leave you with mixed feelings. In the meantime, you can make yourself a safer driver on the road by following our recommendations. With the current pandemic, you may not be traveling as much as you used to, but with the help from a few modifications, you can get out when you need to — safely, efficiently, and inexpensively. 


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