Talking With Older Loved Ones About Their Driving
December 6 – 10, 2021, is Older Driver Safety Awareness Week. In 2020, fewer people traveled for the holidays, but this year, predictions are that more families will celebrate together. In many families, this tradition includes a visit to elderly parents, grandparents and other older 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! They might notice new dents on the car or the garage door. Or maybe when Grandma picked them up at the airport, they got a first-hand look at the trouble she was having reading signs and navigating lane changes.
After the visit, younger family members might schedule a frantic video call. Is Grandpa safe driving? And what can they do? Nobody wants to bring it up with him! Like most families, they feel some trepidation around this subject.
We are a car-centric culture, so anyone suggesting that an older adult should 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 a trigger for depression and grief. So think it through before you bring up the subject. Here are seven things to consider about before the conversation begins:
- Not all seniors are bad drivers. First, ask yourself 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 and flexibility, slower reaction time, and memory loss all can make it harder to be safe on the road. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the rate of crashes increases noticeably after a driver turns 75. Data shows that every year, almost 8,000 older adults are killed and more than 250,000 are injured in crashes. Many seniors self-limit their driving in response to their changing abilities, by avoiding driving at night, and sticking to familiar routes. But that may not be enough. It might be best to give up the car keys.
- 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. Their 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 no longer be a good fit. If it’s large and difficult to maneuver, check out smaller cars that are easier to drive and park. Newer cars have safety features that seem as if they could have been designed for older adults, such as backup cameras and warning sensors.
- You can call in experts to help. When a senior loved one avoids the conversation about driving, the opinion of an outsider may carry more weight than yours. Encourage your loved one to seek an evaluation by their doctor, the Department of Motor Vehicles, or a driver rehabilitation specialist. The American Occupational Therapy Association, who are the 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 discussing driving safety and options early on, while your loved one is still a capable driver. If it would be possible, assure your loved one that you will help drive them places—but that’s only the beginning. Together, research public transportation options, such as the bus or subway, taxi cabs or ride sharing services, 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. As you plan with your loved one for future care and living options, make driving safety part of the picture. 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 sizeable amount that could be available for alternative transportation costs. Remind your loved one that driving isn’t the ultimate goal—mobility and independence are! Whether it’s favorite activities, volunteer jobs, faith community and or whatever other places they love to go, straying active and engaged is more important than the mode of transportation they took to get there.