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Sonoma County classes examine 'Too old to be driving?'


Folks who need a little help — and who wouldn't? — broaching the subject to an older loved one that it might be time to hang up the car keys can find it at a series of upcoming seminars around Sonoma County.

The six presentations, which begin Wednesday night and are titled "We Need to Talk: Family Conversations with Older Drivers," are designed to help families understand the issues and prepare for conversations likely to prompt high emotion, organizers said.

But with an aging population, the need for such discussions is inescapable, and the potential risk for avoiding them too great, they said.

A breakdown for Sonoma County was not available, but California had more than 71,000 licensed drivers aged 90 and older in 2011, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

As baby boomers enter their senior years, "that number is going to probably triple, so we are going to have a lot of older drivers on the road," said Dean Brittingham, transportation coordinator at the Sebastopol Area Senior Center and an organizer of the seminar program.

With age may come restricted movement, diminishing eyesight, deteriorating judgment, slowing reflexes or other ailments that impact one's safety behind the wheel.

Many drivers make adjustments on their own or attend safe driver programs to help understand how they can compensate. And experts say there is no set age at which someone should stop driving.

Two recent, high-profile accidents locally highlight the concerns raised by older drivers, including one in which a 68-year-old Rohnert Park man struck and killed a Sonoma State University professor on his bike and never even stopped to check on his condition.

In another recent case, an 82-year-old Santa Rosa man reportedly chased down a cyclist in his car and knocked him off his bike near Oakmont.

Attorneys in both cases, now in criminal court, have raised questions about the mental fitness of the two drivers.

Because of extended life expectancy, "the majority of drivers today will in fact outlive their ability to drive," said Rabon Saip, 77, also a member of the Transportation and Mobility Committee and a driving force behind the program series.

But in a culture so automotively dependent, the stakes are high. Those who can't drive face potential isolation and depression unless they can find mobility another way, Brittingham said.

Peer support groups being organized to follow up the seminar program are aimed at helping those who stop driving learn to live full post-driving lives.

"We're trying to help people understand what it would mean to give up the keys, where a family needs to step in and help out, where public transportation might be, and how to help people stay mobile and active," Brittingham said.

<NO1>Co-sponsored by the Area Agency on Aging, the seminars are based on an outline developed by the American Association of Retired Persons, or AARP, The Hartford Insurance Co. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab, said Brittingham, a member of Area Agency on Aging's Transportation and Mobility Committee.

It includes discussion on what it means to be driving independently, how to observe older drivers and determine whether someone should no longer be driving, and then how to hold a conversation when it's time for someone to give it up.

"The one that is the most difficult is the one where it's a desperate "when-I-give-up-my-keys-I-give-up-my-life, and that causes people to take huge risks on our highways and our streets," said Saip, 77, a member of the Transportation and Mobility Committee with Brittingham.

Saip said he's made the program a personal mission for the past five years, in part because of his own experience giving up driving.

Forced by a congenital eye problem to surrender his license in his late 40s, he remembers "one of the worst withdrawals that anyone could experience."

"To figure out how one lives without driving was an enormous challenge, and was such a psychologically impactful experience that I never forgot it," he said.

Saip now sees how enriching and rewarding his dependence on others has become, but said every time he hears of an elderly driver involved in an injury crash or a fatality "it hurts my heart."

"Probably they can't figure out how not to drive," he said.

Wednesday's class will be held at the Petaluma Senior Center, 320 N. McDowell Blvd., (707) 778-4380.

The Sebastopol Senior Center will host a session Sept. 20 at 167 N. High St., (707) 829-2440.

Additional sessions include: Oct. 17 at the Cloverdale Senior Center, 311 N. Main St., (707) 894-4826; Oct. 24 at the Healdsburg Senior Center, 133 Matheson St., (707) 431-3324; Nov. 7 at the Vintage House in Sonoma, 264 First St. E., (707) 996-0311; and Nov. 14 at the Bennett Valley Senior Center in Santa Rosa, 704 Bennett Valley Road, (707) 545-8608.

Space is limited to 25 people for each seminar. Those wishing to attend should reserve a spot by calling Allegra Wilson at the Area Agency on Aging, (707) 565-5950, or by calling the local senior center hosting the seminar one wishes to attend.

More information is available at www.socoaaa.org/whats_new.htm.

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)