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The subject of driving for elders can get quite emotional. It is a symbol of independence and freedom. It can also be increasingly dangerous as we age. At AgingParents.com, where we consult with families of elders, we see many families with a general reluctance to bring up the topic with an aging parent. This occurs even when the families see worrisome signs of trouble like minor accidents or unexplained dents in the elder’s car. Sometimes elders cause accidents in which it is lucky that no one got injured. Sometimes a family member expresses alarm at the aging parent’s driving, but the only remedy they relate is that they won’t get in the car with the parent driving. They don’t feel safe. What about everyone else on the road? There is no certain age when driving becomes unsafe.
In most states, there are no clear older age restrictions about a driver’s license. Some states require more frequent license testing above a certain age. But in other states, licenses are renewed automatically, and sometimes for years, even when a person is over age 85. Don’t count on the state to stop a dangerous aging parent from driving.
Driving may feel automatic to those of us who got our driver’s licenses as teenagers and have been at it for decades. However, it is actually a complex task that demands the ability to see well, hear well, pay attention to the road and others, anticipate danger ahead and respond to sudden changes.
As people age, reaction time naturally slows, which means they need more time see a problem and then take action to avoid a collision or obstacle. Add to that impaired vision, hearing loss, and the worst threat of all—confusion. Some insurers say that people of advanced age cause as many accidents as teen drivers. It’s a scary thought.
Confronting the Problem
It is likely to be uncomfortable to bring up the topic of your worries about your aging loved one getting behind the wheel. While statistics show that most people who are asked to stop driving will do so if you ask nicely and offer alternatives, there are plenty of folks who will strongly resist. Some get angry if it is even mentioned to them. Some flatly refuse. However, in spite of that, most of us will indeed have to stop driving at some point as we age. You don’t want the decision made for them by an accident they cause that hurts someone, or worse. What can we do to make the transition from driving easier on our aging parents and on us?
Sometimes a change of residence is key. When my mother-in-law decided to move to assisted living at age 90, in an urban area known for its traffic problems. She decided on her own, that she didn’t want to fight the traffic there and she would give up driving. What a relief! But, the transportation offered by the seniors’ home was too limited for her. She thought taxis were too expensive and she liked to get out and about on her own schedule. We suggested Uber
Families may hire a care worker to transport their elder to the places they want to go. That requires a work schedule and a reliable car, as well as a worker who will need more than being on call for the occasional request for transportation. In conjunction with driving the aging parent, the worker can also help with things like shopping, cooking, housekeeping or other tasks. It may be difficult to find such a worker, as many agencies who provide workers for elders require a four-hour minimum for each visit.
The Last Resort
Sometimes it is clear that the elder is very dangerous to drive but they stubbornly refuse to give it up. Families try a lot of things, some of which we don’t recommend. One is to sneak and disable the car. Crafty elders will get it functional again, even having it towed to a repair shop. Others will replace the keys the family took away. One woman we encountered just went out and bought another car after her family removed hers. The overall mental capacity of the elder must be considered and legal advice as to the question of guardianship can help. A court order is extreme but can become necessary.
Your best strategy is to try persuasion first. Seek legal advice if the danger is extremely high and there are no other options. Your aging parent and the driving public deserve protection.