When a Disoriented Senior Wants to Drive

Would you be brave enough to take the car keys away from a senior citizen?

January 23, 2009, 2:33 PM

Jan. 26, 2009— -- Bernie Padden, 92, stood alone on a Montclair, N.J., street corner. He seemed confused and disoriented as he wandered around, stopping passersby, and asking, "Excuse me, can you help me find my car?"

Nearly everyone who saw him stopped to lend a hand: "Just relax, don't worry, we'll find your car," one young woman assured him.

These helpful strangers soon discovered not only that his car was right in front of him but that he had forgotten how to start it, and how to put it into gear. Even so, all of them watched him get behind the wheel and drive off.

According to Peter Reed, senior director of programs for the Alzheimer's Association, the decision to take away a senior's keys isn't simple.

"It's a really difficult decision to make for any person and for a family, because it's a part of who we are," he said. "It's our independence; it's how we get around."

It certainly is a difficult decision and, as our population ages, it's a decision more and more of us will face.

Although most senior citizens are careful behind the wheel, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drivers older than 70 have a higher fatality rate per mile than any other group, except people under 25. And most of those fatalities happened at some kind of crossroads.

A 2007 study released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that 40 percent of serious crashes at intersections involved people older than 70. Add to this the fact that the number of elderly drivers is projected to double to 70 million by the year 2030 and you have the makings of a potentially dangerous problem.

On the street, Padden knew nothing of this danger. In fact, he wasn't asking people to find his car anymore; he began handing them the keys and asking them to start it.

"Can you try it for me?" he asked passerby Russell Heltzer.

"You want me to get in the car and start it?" Heltzer asked.

Padden nodded and Heltzer slipped behind the wheel, keys in hand.

"You got to turn it all the way," Padden said, as the car roared to life. "Now, it's on."

Heltzer climbed out of the car, careful to hold the door as Padden sat in the driver's seat. "Put your seat belt on, it's not on yet," Heltzer cautioned, as he waited for the confused senior to back out of his parking space.

"Keep going, keep going ...," Heltzer said, before noticing a large, black motorcycle directly in the path of Padden's car.

"Stop the car, stop the car," Heltzer yelled.

Too late. The late model sedan slammed into the bike, knocking it to the ground with a loud crash.

What Would You Do?

Heltzer took out his cell phone and called someone he thought was the old man's son. "I'm with your father," Heltzer said. "He hit a motorbike."

But the voice on the other end of the line was actually an ABC News producer working for "What Would You Do?" And the elderly man was an actor taking part in ABC's hidden camera experiment.

ABC News correspondent John Quinones approached Heltzer with a camera crew. "What should a person do if you'd seen something like this in real life?" Quinones asked.

"I should have said, 'Are you OK to drive?'" Heltzer said.

"He clearly was not OK to drive," said Quinones.

"No, he was not," Heltzer said.

"Hopefully, what can be happening here is a conversation," Reed said. "And I think that is what I would try to encourage as much as anything else is that if someone senses that something is wrong … try to understand the situation and use their judgment about what the right steps would be."

"If it appears dangerous, why not grab the car keys away from the person?" Quinones asked.

"Because you don't know the person and if it's a stranger you don't know how they're going to react."

During our two-day experiment, most people reacted with kindness but drew the line at questioning the senior's right to drive. But not teacher Aaron Shorr.

"You shouldn't be driving if you don't remember what kind of car you have," he gently cautioned the 92-year-old actor as he walked him around, looking for the lost vehicle. Once they found it, Shorr dialed 911 from his cell phone.

"There's an elderly gentleman here who needs some help."

As he waits for help to arrive, he made another call to a man he thought was Padden's son. "I've called the police. Driving is not a hot idea for him."

Shorr has had to make that difficult call before.

"I took my mother off the road, too," he said. "It reached a certain point in time where if you're just not capable behind the wheel of a car you shouldn't be behind the wheel of a car."

Common Concern

Reed of the Alzheimer's Association agreed. "Calling a family member, calling the police and getting other people involved to help manage the situation really is the right approach," he said.

When we eventually revealed what we were doing to the unknowing strangers who came to the aid of the elderly actor, it opened a floodgate of memories.

"I remember my father, we used to follow him home and stuff like that but he would insist on driving," one woman confided to Quinones.

"My father still keeps his license in his wallet and believes he still has a car," another said.

"A lesson here for your students?" Quinones asked teacher Shorr.

"Well, just for everybody, you know," he said. "Just look out for each other. We don't do enough of that anymore."

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