What Happens to Older Couples When One Person Stops Driving

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Senior Couple Walking Together on Sunny Day
Photo: Willowpix/Getty Images

One of the more difficult transitions many people face as they age is reaching a point where they can no longer drive. It’s a decision that tends to cause a lot of familial tension between older and younger family members, but less studied is the impact it has at the level of a couple; when there’s one spouse who still can drive, after all, he or she ends up suddenly shouldering a great deal more of the transportation workload. And according to a recent study in Research on Aging, in the U.S., where about 75 percent of adults lives outside of cities, this sudden reduction in overall mobility can bring with it all sorts of consequences that might lead older people to become less engaged with the world.

For the study, a team led by Angela Curl of the University of Missouri - Columbia’s School of Social Work analyzed a big set of preexisting data that followed individuals from 1998 to 2010, coming away with 2,914 individuals who were members of 1,457 heterosexual couples. The question they asked was simple: What happens to both partners when one partner stops driving?

A rundown of the results, from the abstract:

[D]riving cessation reduced husbands’ productive and social engagement, and wives’ productive engagement. Spousal driving cessation reduced husbands’ likelihood of working or formal volunteering, and wives’ likelihood of working or informal volunteering. The more time since spousal driving cessation, the less likely husbands were to work and the less likely wives were to formally volunteer. 

The researchers have some interesting ideas for why some of these gender differences popped up:

When a wife ceased driving, her husband’s likelihood of formal, but not informal, volunteering was reduced. It is possible that within marriage, wives are the primary force behind formal volunteer work (Rotolo & Wilson, 2006). Our findings for wives versus husbands provide potential evidence for this, as husbands’ driving cessation did not significantly impact wives’ formal volunteering. Thus, it is possible that when husbands cease driving, they no longer have the motivation to maintain formal volunteering connections. It is also possible that when prioritizing driving needs after a wife’s cessation, those activities that involve individuals closest to the couple — family, friends, and neighbors — take precedence over more formal connections, and thus those activities are more likely to be maintained. Future research shouldexplore these possibilities within dyads more thoroughly.

Since we know that being engaged with life, whether through a job, volunteering, or other hobbies, is one of the best ways to ensure healthy aging, the clear takeaway here is that it’s important to figure out ways to blunt the impact that occurs when older people stop driving. It’s a big challenge in as sprawled-out a place as the U.S.