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Drugs + Driving = Danger

State News Mo: Driving
Emergency room nurse Karin Riepe is
Whitney Curtis/Whitney Curtis

By Tim Poor

Karin Riepe knows all too well what can happen when older drivers get behind the wheel under the influence of medication. After her 73-year-old mother—who was taking at least four prescription medications—ran her car into a ditch, Riepe knew it was time for her mom to call it quits on driving.

“I’ve been the person who’s had to take someone’s keys away,” she said. “It’s a very tough situation.”

An emergency room nurse at North Kansas City Hospital, Riepe, 51, has seen other older people who have been in car accidents in which medications may have been a contributing cause. Now she’s helping AARP Missouri develop an educational program for older drivers and caregivers about the risks medications can pose for drivers, and what they can do about those risks, with the goal of allowing them to drive as safely as possible for as long as possible.

Nurses involved in program

The program will be especially useful for people in the “sandwich generation”—taking care of both children and parents—said Riepe. As regional director of the Missouri Nurses Association, Riepe said that organization will also play a role in the program.

The program will build on the already popular AARP Driver Safety workshops aimed primarily at older drivers.

“We’re really excited about it,” said Kathleen Bond, AARP Missouri state president,  a registered nurse and the former dean of nursing at several institutions, most recently Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y.

Many people 65 and older take five or more medications, and they may not be aware of drugs’ possible side effects or interactions.

“People don’t understand that [medication] can interfere with your alertness when driving,” Bond said. “A lot of seniors may have high blood pressure; medication can affect their ability to think and the ability to drive. It can happen suddenly. Your physiology changes day to day, month to month.”

A pilot program will be conducted in April at a retirement center in the Kansas City area and then expanded throughout Missouri.

The one- to two-hour workshops will be geared to groups of 50 or fewer and be led by two volunteers, one from the nurses’ association and one from AARP Driver Safety. There will be no charge for the program.

The most important advice, according to program materials, is that “everyone should be involved” in discussions about medications and driving safety: the driver, his or her health care provider, and the driver’s family.

A few safety tips:

  • Keep a list of drugs you take in the glove compartment of your car and put a list near your home phone, so that if you’re in an accident, caregivers will have easy access.
  • Ask your doctor and pharmacist about the side effects of the medication you’re taking.
  • Start taking any new medication at bedtime (if it’s OK with your doctor) so you can gauge the side effects when you’re not driving.
  • Avoid driving during the first few days you’re taking a new medication, if possible.

Craig Eichelman, AARP Missouri state director, has been working with Bond and Riepe to develop the program, the first of its kind in the nation for AARP. He hopes it will be adopted nationally.

‘A topic that resonates’

“You just know it’s a topic that resonates with folks. People get it immediately,” Eichelman said. “How many times have you heard, ‘I’ll drive with my mom, but I don’t want her taking the kids to soccer practice’ ”?
Here are some common medications for older people and their possible side effects, all of which can be exacerbated by consuming alcoholic beverages:

    • Blood pressure medication—dizziness, drowsiness, fatigue.
    • Pain medication—sedation, dizziness, light-headedness.
    • Tranquilizers/antidepressants—sedation, insomnia, seizure, blurred vision.
    • Allergy medication – Sedation.
    • Sleep medication – Sedation, dizziness.
    • Pain medication – sedation, dizziness, lightheadedness.
    • Parkinson’s medication – Lightheadedness, dizziness, drowsiness, fatigue, blurred vision, confusion.

For further information and to sign up for a workshop, go to the AARP Missouri website.

Tim Poor is a freelance writer in Clayton, Mo.

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