New study: Giving up car keys could lead to social isolation for older adults

Photo of car keys in the road

Putting the brakes on seniors’ driving privileges can leave them feeling socially isolated, according to new research from Case Western Reserve University. The good news is researchers believe alternative transportation options and technology-such as FaceTime or Skype-may help seniors feel more connected.

“Our study showed both immediate and long-term effects of driving cessation on social isolation,” said Weidi Qin, the study’s lead author and a doctoral candidate at the university’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences.

The study, recently published in the Journal of Aging and Health, used six-year survey data from nearly 7,000 Medicare beneficiaries age 65 or older who had recently stopped driving.

student from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences

Weidi Qin, a doctoral candidate at the university’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences

The seniors were asked whether they had driven within the past year and about their networks-such as a spouse, family/friends, church and clubs. Other questions focused on their mental and physical health-including cognitive status and depressive symptoms.

“We found that as the car keys are taken away from older adults, social isolation becomes a serious issue-almost immediately,” Qin said. “Previous studies have primarily focused on the long-term effects of driving cessation on social engagement, instead of isolation.”

She said it’s an important focus of research, particularly given that the number of Baby Boomers-people born between 1946 and 1964-will climb to an estimated 71 million by 2029, according to federal Census data.

Qin added that alternative forms of transportation, such as public transit and ridesharing, and the use of technology, such as group video chat apps like FaceTime and Skype, may offset seniors’ feelings of isolation.

“Interventions targeting older adults who have recently stopped driving may reduce social isolation,” Qin said, noting that further study is needed.

Additional findings include:

  • Among the study’s total participants, 20% were classified as not socially isolated, 58% were somewhat isolated and 21% were socially isolated. Those who felt some type of isolation tended to be older males, as well as those with lower educational levels and income, Qin said.
  • About 20% of the seniors stopped driving during the five years of follow-up, while nearly 60% continued to drive. Another 20% were nondrivers at the time of the study.
  • Compared to active drivers, nondrivers had twice the odds of being in a higher social isolation category. In addition, the older the individual (85-plus age group), the more likely to be socially isolated compared with younger age groups (65-69) in the study.

Qin was joined in the research by Xiaoling Xiang from the University of Michigan and Harry Taylor of Duke University.

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