Independent travel benefits mental health

Older people who drive are less depressed
  • Deborah Condon

The importance of independent travel for older people has been highlighted by a new Irish study, which found that those who drive themselves or use public transport have better mental health.

The findings come from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), which is an ongoing study of people over the age of 50 in Ireland being carried out by researchers at Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

According to the research, older people who drive, are driven by a partner or spouse, or use public transport, have better mental health, higher levels of social participation, greater social networks and an overall better quality of life, compared to those being driven by other family members and friends, or those taking taxis.

The biggest benefits were seen in those who drive themselves.

The study found that overall, cars were the most frequent mode of transport and most study participants drove themselves. However, almost one in nine people relied on family, friends and taxis to get them around.

Driving decreased with age and this was particularly evident in women. Some 86% of men in the 50-64 age group drove themselves and this reduced to 70% in the 75+ age group. However among women, 72% in the 50-64 age group drove themselves and this fell to just 30% in the 75+ age group.

Those with reduced levels of driving, particularly non-drivers or those who have stopped driving, reported higher levels of depressive symptoms and loneliness, fewer social networks, lower social participation and an overall lower quality of life, compared to current drivers.

"Driving allows a level of freedom and independence that is often not available with public transport and therefore it is hugely important for social engagement, mental health and wellbeing.

"Many people drive less frequently or stop driving as they get older, and this can be a huge upheaval especially if this change is not made by choice. Early planning and the availability of suitable alternative means of transport are vital to facilitate this transition from driving to not driving," commented the study's lead author, TILDA project manager, Dr Orna Donoghue.

She noted that family and friends often play a key role in providing transport to older adults, which allows them to complete essential daily activities and maintain social networks.

"However, some older adults are reluctant to ask others for lifts so they prioritise what they see as the ‘essential' trips rather than the discretionary or social trips, which are also very important for mental health and wellbeing," Dr Donoghue explained.

Meanwhile, according to TILDA principal investigator, Prof Rose Anne Kenny, ideally, older people should be supported to drive for as long as it is safe for them to do so, "and as long as they would like to do so".

"However, we also need to address the challenge of improved transport networks and availability of local amenities and services that meet the specific needs of older adults and allow them to maintain their independence and social activities.

"Retaining public transport links and/or identifying alternative means of providing transport is required, and this is especially pertinent given the current challenges to the provision of public transport," she added.

Details of these findings are published in the journal, Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour.


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