I remember the conversations I had with my mother early in 2001. I can’t believe I was so naive!
Dad had just passed away and Mom hadn’t driven for 5 years. She had mild vascular dementia and was on heavy-duty pain medication for severe lower-back pain. Because my sisters and I lived more than 1,000 miles away, we hired a caregiver to be with Mom from early morning until she went to bed, 7 days a week.
So, for my first “discussion,” I used a purely logical argument based on her not having driven for such a long time. Her caregiver would take her wherever and whenever she needed to go, just like she’s already been doing.
Nope! No go! She was quite certain that she was fully capable of driving again whenever she wanted to. It was just a matter of doing so. Besides, what else could she do if she needed to go somewhere and her caregiver didn’t show up that day? (That never happened!)
I tried a different approach a few days later. Because she had become increasingly frail as she grew older, I talked to her about how her physical capabilities compared to the capabilities needed to drive without having an accident.
Again, no go! In fact, she said quite bluntly, “Stop treating me like a child!”
My mistake that time was that I was the one judging her capabilities, without any input from her. It was all one-sided, only from my point of view. The fact that her frailty could be the cause of an accident that hurt someone else had absolutely no bearing as far as she was concerned. She resented the fact that I had the audacity to judge her.
A day or so later, I tried the direct approach by telling her: “Mom, it’s not safe for you to drive anymore! I’ve hidden the keys. Your caregiver knows where they are, and she’ll take you wherever you need to go.”
Then the heated argument began. “I told you to stop treating me like a child. You will not hide the keys. In fact, give them to me … NOW! If I need to go anywhere, I’ll give them to (her caregiver).”
That hurt! And I shut up — for about a week — with the problem still unresolved. I didn’t dare move the car to another location (her caregiver had her own car), or disable it. Mom had a very strong will. If I moved it, she would have called the police to report it stolen. If I disabled it, she would simply have called AAA and have it towed to be fixed.
The fourth time I tried a completely different approach. We talked about how she felt about her own skills, pausing after each question so that she had time to think about it. How quickly could she turn her head from side to side? Could she see clearly in both eyes (she was beginning to experience macular degeneration in her right eye)? How quickly could she moved her hands and arms, like turning a steering wheel? How quickly could she move her feet, especially if she needed to push on the brakes? Then, the clincher: Did she feel that she could avoid having an accident that might injure someone else, maybe even a child?
This was a long discussion, but she finally decided on her own that she really shouldn’t be driving — she didn’t want to hurt anyone.
Did I make this story up to make a point? Absolutely not. What happened then will stick with me for the rest of my life. My mother and I always had a close relationship, even though it did include the occasional “learning experience” for me. And, this experience taught me several things.
You have not become your parent’s parent. There has been no role reversal. Your parent is still an adult, even though he/she may need your assistance with normal activities of daily living. They may be asking for your help, but they are not asking you to take over their lives.
Don’t take away their keys. (Doing so will probably harm your relationship permanently.) The best approach is to let them make their own decisions — with a little help (suggestions) from you. But, don’t expect changes to occur overnight. Mom didn’t agree to stop driving until about three weeks after I began the “discussion.”
As I quickly learned, suggesting to your elderly parent that it may be time to stop driving can easily deteriorate into one of the most difficult conversations you will ever have. The issues involved are very emotional because driving represents freedom and independence — the ability to visit friends, go to the movies and shop, when and where they want to — without relying on anyone else. As a result, some people get defensive, even angry, when the subject of their driving abilities is raised. Remember, don’t be judgmental.
How do you know when it’s time to have the conversation?
Are elderly drivers safe? Yes — for the most part. The same can be said for teen drivers. Do driving skills of elderly people decline with age? Yes, but just like other age groups, driving skills vary from person to person. There is no specific age at which an elderly person becomes unable to drive. Indeed, there are quite a few very capable drivers in the U.S. who have celebrated their 90th — even their 100th — birthdays.
Driving safely requires the complex coordination of many different skills. The physical and mental changes that accompany aging often diminishes these skills. For example:
- Response time can slow down.
- Vision and hearing loss often occurs.
- Muscle strength and flexibility diminishes.
- Medications can cause drowsiness.
- The ability to focus or concentrate can be reduced.
- Tolerance for the effects of alcohol reduces with age.
Taken separately, none of these changes automatically means that an elderly person should stop driving. But you should regularly evaluate your loved one’s driving skills to determine if they need to alter their driving habits or stop driving altogether.
What if they have dementia or, worse yet, Alzheimer’s?
Just because they’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia doesn’t automatically mean that they should give up driving. Indeed, most drivers who are still in the initial stages of dementia have absolutely no problem driving. But, just like other elderly drivers, you should regularly evaluate their driving skills and other medical issues.
Telltale signs of decline in driving abilities
- Drive at inappropriate speeds, either too fast or too slow?
- Confuse the brake and gas pedals?
- Ask passengers to help check if it is clear to pass or turn?
- Respond slowly to or not notice pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers?
- Ignore, disobey or misinterpret street signs and traffic lights?
- Fail to yield to other cars or pedestrians who have the right-of-way?
- Fail to judge distances between cars correctly while driving?
- Become easily frustrated and angry while driving?
- Appear drowsy, confused or frightened?
- Have a series of near accidents or near misses?
- Drift across lane markings or bump into curbs?
- Forget to turn on headlights after dusk?
- Have difficulty with glare from oncoming headlights, streetlights, or other bright or shiny objects, especially at dawn, dusk and at night?
- Have difficulty turning their head, neck, shoulders or body while driving or parking?
- Have difficulty coordinating hand and foot movements necessary for smooth driving
- Have difficulty judging distances when parking? Check their car for dings and dents on the sides and on the front and rear bumpers.
- Ignore signs of mechanical problems, including underinflated tires? One in 4 cars has at least one tire that is under-inflated by 8 pounds or more. Low tire pressure is a major cause of accidents.
- Have too little strength to turn the wheel quickly in an emergency such as a tire failure, a child darting into traffic, etc.?
- Get lost repeatedly, even in familiar areas?
If the answer to one or more of these questions is “Yes,” you should explore whether medical issues are affecting their driving skills.
Medical issues to consider
Has your elderly loved one:
- Had their vision and hearing tested recently?
- Had a physical examination within the past year to test reflexes and make sure they don’t have illnesses that would impact their driving?
- Been prescribed medications or combinations of medications that might make them drowsy or confused while driving?
- Reduced or eliminated their intake of alcohol to compensate for lower tolerance?
- Had difficulty climbing a flight of stairs or walking more than one block?
- Fallen — not counting a trip or stumble — once or more in the last year?
- Had a physician tell them they should stop driving?
Adapting to changes
There are many ways for elderly drivers to adjust so they are not a danger to themselves or others. Among them are:
- Avoid driving at night and, if possible, at dawn or dusk.
- Drive only to familiar locations.
- Don’t drive in poor weather conditions.
- Avoid driving to places far away from home.
- Avoid expressways (freeways) and rush hour traffic.
- Leave plenty of time to get where they are going.
- Don’t drive alone.
Driving is not necessarily an all-or-nothing activity. There are several programs to help elderly drivers adjust their driving to changes in their physical condition.
- AARP offers the highly recommended Driver Safety Program for older people. To find a class near you or your loved one, visit AARP’s Driver Safety Program online.
- The American Occupational Therapy Association has a national database of occupational therapists who specialize in driver evaluation and rehabilitation. They are able to identify not only a driver’s strengths but also the physical, visual, and cognitive challenges the person faces. As a result, occupational therapists can evaluate your loved one’s overall ability to operate a vehicle safely and, if needed, recommend ways to limit risks.
- The USAA Educational Foundation, AARP, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration developed a very informative booklet, “Driving Safely While Aging Gracefully.” It describes many of the physical changes associated with aging, and includes tips on coping with them so that older people can remain safe drivers.
Discuss alternatives to driving
The discussion should never end when your loved one agrees to stop driving. Indeed, it’s only half finished. They have one more question that needs to be answered, “How am I supposed to get where I need to go when I need to go there?” For example:
- To doctor appointments
- To other appointments
- To the grocery
- To shop for clothes and other necessities
- To visit friends, at home or in the hospital
- To the senior center
- To church, synagogue, mosque or temple
Now is not the time to shrug your shoulders and leave them out in the cold without a solution(s). Here are a few suggestions:
- If you and/or your siblings live nearby, you (and/or members of your respective families, including adult children) could take turns taking your loved one where they need to go.
- Their friends and neighbors might help out.
- Perhaps members of their church, synagogue, mosque or temple could also share in the driving duties.
- Some neighborhood and homeowners associations regularly help senior residents who need transportation.
- Most communities have a senior center that likely has a van service one can call for a ride.
- Some hospitals, malls, places of worship or grocery stores have shuttle buses.
- Are there college kid chauffeurs in your area?
- Consider taxis and wheelchair transportation vans — Some offer special rates for seniors.
- Some local bus companies provide paratransit services for elderly people who can qualify. You can help your parent obtain and submit the necessary medical forms so that they become eligible for this transportation assistance.
- Many cities offer special discounts for seniors on buses and trains, and senior centers and community service agencies often provide special transportation alternatives.
- Finally, check the local aging office in your parent’s area for groups in their community who can help with transportation needs.
- Perhaps it’s time to move into an independent or assisted living facility that provides rides for their residents.
More Suggestions for Getting Around When You No Longer Drive
More on how to get them to stop driving
Bottom Line: Ask yourself if you would feel safe allowing your children or grandchildren to ride with your loved one. If the answer is “No,” it’s time to get serious about driving cessation. If they agree to stop driving without an argument, wonderful. But, that’s the ideal situation that doesn’t happen very often. If not, you still have several options:
- My recommended technique is, of course, what worked with my mother — a multi-part discussion that allowed her to decide for herself that she shouldn’t drive any longer. In other words, she sold herself — after I learned the hard way that telling her to stop (dictating a choice she didn’t like), arguing, and demanding didn’t work — and won’t work with your parent either. It may take several visits to the topic. Don’t paint yourself into a box by not allowing enough time to discuss the topic without resorting to “laying down the law.” (Using children as examples of people who could be hurt if your loved one has an accident can be an effective approach.) Be patient and loving, but also firm. And, be sensitive to the fact that it may be embarrassing or even humiliating for your loved one.
- Consider an evaluation by a driving school or instructor.
- If he/she won’t honestly examine their own driving capabilities, try having someone else whom they respect talk to them (a priest, a minister, their doctor).
- Talk to their local police department. Ask for their advice. Could one of their officers come to your parent’s home to talk to them? Many have extensive experience in convincing elderly drivers that they should stop driving.
- Contact the Department of Motor Vehicles in the state where your parent lives and report your concerns. Depending upon state regulations and your loved one’s disabilities, it may be illegal for them to continue to drive. The DMV may do nothing more than send a letter, but this might help convince your parent to stop.
- As an absolute last resort, you may still have to make the decision for them for their own safety and the safety of other drivers and pedestrians. But, instead of simply taking/hiding the keys, you might try a much less traumatic approach first. That is, quietly replace the car key with one that looks like it, but that doesn’t work in the vehicle. If that doesn’t work, you only choice may be to disable the car or move it to a location beyond their control. Leave the headlights on all night or disconnect the battery to disable the car. If your loved one is likely to call AAA or a mechanic, you have no choice but to eliminate all access to the car. While this may seem extreme, it can save the lives of seniors, other drivers and pedestrians. But, be aware that drastic action like this may cause an irreparable rift in your relationship.
- There’s a big advantage to not owning a car, that is, saving money: no need to buy gas or diesel fuel anymore; no more car payments; no more insurance payments; plus nothing to pay for oil changes, tires, and other maintenance. In fact, when you add up these savings, you’ll find that your parent has a relatively large transportation allowance available that will pay for many, many taxi rides every month.
- Watch for signs of depression and isolation. If they occur, get help as soon as possible.
We’d love your input
If you’ve already succeeded in getting a parent or another loved one to stop driving, we’d love to learn just how you did it. Let us know in the Comments below. Who knows? Your solution may be just the one that helps someone else convince their parent to stop driving.