Talking to seniors about their driving abilities can be a difficult conversation to have. For many people, driving represents independence, so giving up that freedom can be very difficult to accept. While most older adults are generally safe drivers with few accidents – they’ve had lots of experience on the road, wear their seat belt, and are cautious overall – driving may actually be less safe for seniors because the risk of fatality from a collision increases with age. This is especially true for those in their 80s, who are more fragile and vulnerable to injury from a collision. Medical conditions, like dementia and arthritis, as well as medication usage, can significantly increase the risk of accidents and injury among older adults.
As your loved one ages and you notice signs that their driving abilities are declining, you may ask yourself, “Is my older relative safe on the road?” You may wish to have a conversation with your loved about their driving if they:
- Have been in a car accident
- Experienced a close call
- Ran a red light
- Received a ticket for a driving violation
- Are speeding or driving too slow
- Are having problems with memory loss
- Are taking medications that may affect their driving, such as anti-anxiety drugs, narcotics, and sleeping pills
- Are having problems with hearing or eyesight
- Have a medical condition such as Alzheimer’s Disease, arthritis, cataracts, diabetes, glaucoma, muscular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease, sleep apnea, or have had a stroke
If you simply don’t feel safe as a passenger anymore when they’re behind the wheel, then it’s time to have a conversation with your family member about how they shouldn’t drive. It’s normal to struggle to tell an elderly parent they can’t drive, but if you prepare ahead for the conversation and let the following ideas help guide you, you’ll feel better equipped to have “the talk” with your loved one.
Choose who will initiate the conversation.
You may want to be the one who has the conversation with your aging parent or elderly relative about their driving. However, consider that your loved one may be more open to listening to someone else. When choosing who will initiate the conversation with your older family member about his or her driving, consider the relationships and personalities involved. According to a Hartford/MIT AgeLab survey, 50% of married drivers prefer to hear about driving concerns first from their spouses, and those living alone prefer to have these conversations with their doctors, adult children, or a close friend. Some older adults may also be open to hearing from a sibling, adult child’s spouse, or if necessary, a police officer.
Find a good time and plan ahead.
Avoid a confrontation or an intervention with the entire family. Try to keep the conversation one-on-one and pick a time of day when you believe your loved one will be most relaxed – such as in the early afternoon when they’re not too tired or after lunch. It’s common for families to wait to have the first conversation after their family member’s driving has already deteriorated. However, if it’s not too late, approach the conversation in stages versus springing it upon them suddenly. Ideally, you would begin this conversation before any issues have presented themselves and ask questions about what can be done in the future should driving become a safety concern. For example, you can ask: “How will you know when it will be time to retire from driving?”
Provide reasons and make them aware.
Make your parent or senior loved one aware of their decreased driving abilities, the variety of physical changes due to health conditions or age they may be going through, and how their medications or sleep deprivation can affect their driving skills. Ask them questions that open up the conversation about their health and physical well-being so that you can follow up with your concerns about how that affects their driving abilities. Consider opening up the conversation with the following questions and statements.
- “What changes have you noticed with your driving lately?”
- “Have you noticed any physical changes from your medications lately?”
- “Have you visited the eye doctor recently and what did he/she say about your vision?”
- “That was a close call the other day when we were driving. I worry about your safety.”
- “Everyone drives so fast these days – there was another accident just the other day. Have you had any concerns about driving recently?”
Be encouraging and supportive.
Let your loved one know that your goal is to make sure they’re safe and that you wish for them to remain independent and will do everything you can to help. Avoid saying they are a dangerous driver and starting out the conversation by demanding they need to stop driving. Focus on the facts available to you, such as their medical condition or your first-hand experience of their unsafe driving. This will help your loved one feel more supported and understanding of the circumstances versus feeling like they are somehow at fault.
Offer alternative transportation suggestions.
The best way to fix a problem is to find a solution. If your aging relative wishes to remain independent, then an alternative means of transportation will be necessary. Assess your loved one’s driving abilities and determine if they should not drive at all, or if they are able to drive in certain limited conditions, such as only during the day and not farther than a few miles from home.
If limited driving is an option, consider:
- Avoiding driving at night and in bad weather
- Driving only in familiar places and within a certain radius of home
- Staying off of expressways or busy roads when possible
- Limiting distractions while driving by turning off the radio and avoiding conversations while driving
If driving is no longer an option, consider:
- Transportation services, like Paratransit, that provides rides as needed for the disabled or the elderly
- Taxis, or ride-share services like Lyft and GoGo Grandparent, or other private transit organizations
- County transportation services for seniors (contact your Area Agency on Aging & Disability (AAAD) for information about available local programs)
- Setting up a grocery or food delivery service to help alleviate one of the reasons for driving
- Working out a schedule to drive your senior family member yourself
- Hiring a caretaker to assist with driving needs
Suggest a driving test for elderly drivers.
In some cases, a driving test for elderly drivers might be necessary in order to assess the person’s driving ability. In some states, drivers over 75 years of age have to take a road test at the time of renewal. However, if this is not offered in your state, you can schedule a skills evaluation conducted by state-licensed and trained driving instructors, or a clinical assessment by trained occupational therapists to learn the true level and cause of a decline in driving health.
Talking to aging parents about their driving is never easy, however, with some conversation pre-planning and understanding, “the talk” can be successful and you will feel better knowing that safety for your loved one has been addressed.