Newsweek recently ran an excellent article about elderly drivers, and the warning signs that they may be a risk to their own safety or to the safety of those around them. The subtitle of the article was “A roadmap for when you see signs that your elderly parent isn’t capable of driving safely.” I don’t normally reprint full articles, but this one is worth reading in its entirety. Please consider these factors when evaluating your parents or other older relatives.
Watching a parent age is rough. No one likes to see the person who taught you to drive unable to function behind the wheel. In fact, 36 percent of adult children polled by Caring.com and the National Safety Council said that talking to their parents about the need to stop driving would be rougher than a conversation about funeral plans. How can you help you parents stay safely on the road, catch signs of trouble and, when the time comes, encourage them to accept a loss of independence? Here’s a basic roadmap for this difficult process from the experts at Caring.com and gerontologist Elizabeth Dugan, author of “The Driving Dilemma.”
1. Notice the Warning Signs
- Take notice if your parents are reluctant to drive at night or seem tense or exhausted after driving, or complain of getting lost.
- Discreetly check the car for any dents or nicks and ask whether your parents’ auto insurance rates have increased or if they’ve received traffic tickets or warnings.
- Take opportunities to ride in the car while your parents drive. Look for indications of discomfort: Do they crane forward or look tense? Do they tailgate or drift between lanes? Do they react slowly? Do they have trouble finding their way? Do they drive too quickly or slowly? Do they complain about the glare from the headlights of oncoming cars? Do they ask for help in judging whether to pass or turn?
2. How to Start the Conversation
- Don’t subject a parent to a critique in the car. Try to control your own alarm or impatience—having to deal with your emotions won’t help your parent drive better.
- When you do start a discussion about driving, don’t sound alarmed. If you begin with a dramatic outburst like “Dad, you’re going to kill someone,” you’re likely to trigger resistance. Work toward the topic slowly and gently. If a parent ends the conversation or becomes angry, drop the issue temporarily, unless you see an immediate danger (more on that later).
- Ask, don’t tell. If your father’s driving has deteriorated, he’s probably seen the signs, too. Ask: “How is driving going?” If he begins to point out all the practical reasons he needs to drive, take a breath and stop yourself from jumping in. Instead, practice good listening skills, encouraging him to talk about his worries. Many seniors will begin to reminisce about favorite cars and road trips. Don’t cut that short. Your parent is beginning the process of coming to terms with a change in his or her life.
- Turn the conversation toward the downside of driving, including the cost of maintaining a car. Let your parent realize for herself that she risks a serious accident.
- Discuss interim measures like driving only in daylight or on familiar routes.
- Explore other transportation options. Take the bus with a parent who is apprehensive about finding the stop or waiting on the street. Look into local senior transportation services or carpooling opportunities.
- Suggest a senior driving refresher course offered by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the American Automobile Association (AAA) or a driving school.
3. When a Parent Refuses to Stop Driving
- Suggest a joint visit with a trusted doctor. A doctor can discuss whether any treatable medical conditions (for instance, cataracts) are interfering with driving or if assistive devices can help. And a full and respectful exploration of your parent’s physical condition can help everyone, including a spouse, accept inevitable change.
- Be there. Many seniors dread giving up the car keys because they fear isolation. Make it a habit to talk often, offer to drive or help arrange transportation to their activities and important events, and include them in your own life. Don’t let your parents get cut off. You may even want to encourage them to move closer to loved ones or to areas where it’s easier to get around without a car.
- As a last resort, look into the possibility of anonymously issuing a safety complaint through the local department of motor vehicles (DMV). A doctor can also make the complaint. The DMV will ask your parent to submit to a medical evaluation. The agency may limit the right to drive—for instance banning your parent from the road after dark or on highways—or suspend or revoke your parent’s license.