The holidays are a time when many families visit elderly parents, grandparents and other loved ones. That’s why December is the month when families are most likely to realize that Mom and Dad might not be safe behind the wheel. There might be some new dents on the car or the garage door. Maybe when Grandpa picked them up at the airport, they got a firsthand look at the trouble he was having reading signs and navigating lane changes.
We are a car-centric culture, so anyone asking a senior driver to give up driving can expect to be met with resistance. It can be a very emotional topic! For most Americans, driving equals independence, and giving it up may seem like a serious blow to self-esteem, even triggers for depression and grief. You can help. Here are seven things to think about before you start the conversation:
- Not all seniors are bad drivers. Consider whether you are really reacting to things you’ve noticed about your loved one’s driving, versus stereotypes that older adults drive poorly. Studies show that many drivers retain their skills well into their later years. However, visual impairment, hearing loss, decreased manual dexterity, slower reaction time and memory loss all can make it harder to be safe on the road. Studies show many seniors self-limit their driving in response to these changing abilities, avoiding driving at night and sticking to familiar routes. But for many, it’s best to give up the car keys. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the rate of crashes increases noticeably after a driver turns 70; more than 500 seniors are injured while driving each day.
- Senior drivers can improve their skills and extend their safe driving years. Driver’s ed—it’s not just for teenagers! Driver safety classes for older adults are available through AARP, AAA and other organizations. Your loved one also might benefit from an exercise program to increase flexibility and range of motion. The eye doctor can recommend the best type of glasses for driving, including protection against glare. Seniors with hearing loss should wear their hearing aids while driving. And if the driving skills of a senior loved one seem to have taken a sudden dip, medication side effects might be to blame. Your loved one should ask for a medication review, and report side effects, such as drowsiness and confusion.
- The car might be part of the problem. Be sure the car is in good repair. Adding safety features like improved mirrors and new windshield wipers can make the car safer to operate. And bottom line, the car just may not be a good fit any more. If it’s large and difficult to maneuver, check out smaller cars that are easier to drive and park. Newer cars have certain safety features that seem like they could have been designed for older adults, such as backup cameras and warning sensors.
- You can call in experts to help. Many families find that their senior loved ones do not want to have the conversation about driving. Here’s where the opinion of an outsider may carry more weight than yours. Encourage your loved one to seek an evaluation by their doctor or by the DMV. The American Occupational Therapy Association, sponsors of Older Driver Safety Awareness Week, reminds us that occupational therapists have the skills to evaluate a person’s overall ability to operate a vehicle safely. They can provide a good picture of your loved one’s abilities, and suggest some of the appropriate strategies as mentioned above. Aging life care professionals (geriatric care managers) can also offer resources and assessment.
- Start the conversation before there’s a problem. In many families, the discussion of senior driving safety only begins when an elder loved one has had an accident. This isn’t exactly the ideal time to first be talking about the issue. Start talking about driving safety early on, while your loved one is still a capable driver. If it’s a possibility, assure your loved one that you will be one transportation resource—but that’s only the beginning. With your loved one, research the public transportation options, such as the bus or subway, taxi cabs or ride sharing services (such as Uber or Lyft) and special transportation for seniors with disabilities. Once your loved one gets the hang of public transportation, they may enjoy being “subway-savvy” or summoning their Uber.
- Create an “advance directive” for driving. In the same way that you plan with your loved one for future care and living options, make driving safety part of the plan. The earlier you talk about it, the more likely your loved one will be to heed your concerns. A study from the University of Colorado showed that most older adults realize that they may not be the first to recognize a problem, and they would be willing to designate a family member, doctor or other trusted person to say when their driving was no longer safe.
- Talk about the cost of owning a car. Many seniors balk at paying for public transportation, without really thinking about how much it costs to have a car. Add it all up: car payment, gas, insurance, maintenance and repair costs and parking. That is most likely a pretty good chunk of change that would be available for alternative transportation costs. Remind your loved one that driving isn’t the ultimate goal—mobility and independence are! Staying active and engaged in their favorite activities, volunteer jobs, faith community and whatever places they love to go is more important than what they rode to get there.