Angelo and Mary Virgona left their
More than 30 hours later, 91-year-old Virgona and his wife, who is 88, pulled into a gas station 150 miles away, disoriented, hungry and tired.
Tollbooth cameras showed the couple had been driving back and forth on
"We thought perhaps they had gotten carjacked — or something worse," said their son Robert Virgona, 59.
That June day, a reluctant Angelo Virgona joined thousands of Florida seniors who have given up their car keys.
It's a trend that experts say will accelerate as aging baby boomers swell the state's senior population from 18 percent to 27 percent by 2030 — the highest percentage of any state — challenging families, law officers and transportation planners.
"We know the [older] population is going to increase," said Gail Holley, manager of the Safe Mobility for Life program at the
One of the biggest dilemmas for drivers and their relatives is deciding when it's time to stop. Age isn't the only determining factor. Some 89-year-olds, such as Barbara Elrod of
"If I wanted to come here and I couldn't drive, I'd be up the creek," Elrod said after an exercise class at the downtown Orlando YMCA.
As they age, most people develop
Cecelia Figueras, 79, and her 81-year-old husband are facing some of these challenges. Roberto Figueras suffered a
Roberto Figueras has held on to his drivers license, hoping to get behind the wheel again someday.
"He still hasn't accepted it," Cecelia Figueras said. "He's not happy about giving up his rights to drive because he's dependent on me and my granddaughter."
Talking to a loved one about diminished driving capabilities can be a wrenching experience, said Christine Carson, 67, a coordinator for the AARP driver-safety program in Orange County. Some seniors deny they're having trouble in spite of evidence to the contrary. For example, they may emphasize their perfect record of no tickets or crashes but fail to acknowledge that that they've been getting lost.
Fran Carlin-Rogers, an Orlando consultant who specializes in transportation for seniors, said there's a difference between someone experiencing normal age-related changes and someone developing
"Somebody who is having cognitive changes will typically overestimate their capabilities and underestimate the complexity of the situation they're in," Carlin-Rogers said. "It's just part of the disease."
AAA advises relatives to talk privately to the problem driver, avoid lecturing or making demands and work together on transportation alternatives. That can be difficult in Central Florida, where public transportation can be inaccessible or cumbersome; taxis are expensive and time-consuming; and urban sprawl makes driving a necessity in most places.
Carson suggests, "We love you, and that's the reason we don't want you killed or hurt — and we certainly don't want you to hurt someone else."
Driver strategies include staying off the roads at night and in the rain, when it's harder to see. Cecelia Figueras, for instance, said she avoids highways and heavily traveled streets and limits her destinations to familiar places near home.
Thirty-three states and
When precautions fail, Florida's Silver Alert system sends out statewide alerts for missing drivers. They must be 60 or older and have dementia. Last week, the program turned 4 years old. It was established after Mary Zelter, 86, was killed when she drove into the
Recent Silver Alerts further illustrate the gravity of the problem.
A 70-year-old Sanford woman went for a drive in July and was rescued three days later as she sat in her car in a water-filled ditch 25 miles west of Jacksonville.
Anyone who suspects that a driver is mentally or physically impaired can submit a report to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The law gives reporters immunity from civil and criminal liability.
Last year, the Safe Mobility for Life Coalition completed a blueprint to make the streets safer for senior drivers. It advocates educating motorists, increasing transportation funding, promoting driver evaluation and training, improving road design, identifying vulnerable drivers and providing more transportation alternatives.
Ultimately, though, it's up to individuals to consider how they will get around as they age, Holley said.
"You plan for your financial retirement," she said. "It's important to plan for your transportation retirement as well."
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