Julie Entwistle, MBA, BHSc (OT), BSc (Health / Gerontology)
The other day I was driving through a busy parking lot. I noticed an elderly man who parked his car, got out, and proceeded to walk through the parking lot without ever surveying his surroundings. He did not see my vehicle approaching him, and did not appear to notice the other cars that had to stop to let him pass. The other drivers looked both annoyed and perplexed that he could be so clueless.
According to the CDC “Increasing frailty may leave the elderly more vulnerable to being hit by traffic. Age-linked declines in mental function, vision and physical disabilities might place older adult pedestrians at greater risk for being struck by a vehicle.” (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_136049.html).
With this man, what I noticed was quite telling. He was looking at his feet. Many seniors do this when walking. Why? Because they are afraid to fall. With a decline in physical ability comes problems negotiating uneven terrain. Parking lots and sidewalks are full of holes, stones, and cracks that could be problematic for someone with declining mobility. So, they stare at the ground to avoid falling, the entire time being unable to also look around at other risks in the environment. And when you combine this with reduced peripheral vision, they may not notice vehicles approaching.
Society expects seniors to “know better” in that they have been trained, over a lifetime, about the perils of traffic. With children, we don’t expect them to know better because they are carefree and often move before thinking. As driver’s we watch for children and take extra care when we see them around roads or in parking lots. We also tend to take the same precautions when we notice someone who is more visibly disabled using a wheelchair, or white cane. But disabilities are not always visible and we have to be careful to not make assumptions – especially with seniors who may have an unnoticeable visual, cognitive, physical or auditory problem.
My message here is that drivers should be cautious with all pedestrians, but need to be especially mindful of seniors – much like they are with children or other people with visible disabilities. Seniors deserve our patience and the extra time it might take to help them safely go about their day and negotiate the sometimes challenging outdoor environment.