LIVING WELL Magazine on Seniors Behind the Wheel. Are they safe?

Courtesy of In Your Home Care, for SENIOR Magazine (Northshore Edition)

Many adults feel the same way about their parents driving as they do about their teenagers driving. That feeling is one of heightened anxiety, of waiting anxious moments until they hear the driver has returned home safely.

Telling a parent that he or she needs to stop driving is a conversation that most adult children put off as long as possible. They are not sure what to say or, most importantly, how to say it in a way that will not be insulting and yet have the desired effect.

In fact, seniors as a group are relatively safe drivers. The actual number of accidents involving older drivers decreases as age increases. Experts attribute this to self-imposed limitations that include driving fewer miles and avoiding problematic situations like driving at night, during rush hour, and on high speed roadways. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that drivers over 75 have a higher risk of being involved in an accident for every mile they drive. The rate of fatalities increases significantly by this age and is, in fact, on par with teenage drivers (another sobering thought).

So, what can be done? According to AARP, ongoing conversations with family members can help. A survey of older adults found that more than half said they followed the suggestions of others, with women generally more compliant than men. They may prefer to hear it from their spouse (or from professionals like their doctor), but will listen to their adult children. The survey found that about one-quarter of all seniors reported responding with sadness when spoken to about their driving. And while they may even agree with the assessment, they felt depressed at the thought of relinquishing this activity. After all, the implications are significant; fewer trips outside the home, increased dependency on others, fewer social opportunities, and the fear of becoming a burden to others.

Experts believe that while any discussions on driving are likely to be emotional for family members, they should not be put off. They suggest being prepared to have multiple conversations. Ongoing, candid conversations are recommended in order to establish a pattern of open dialogue and give the older adult time to consider the situation without the strain of necessarily changing behaviors immediately.

Rather than tell a parent that “you need to stop driving,” it is more effective to begin by talking about the importance of safety and health, other options that may be available to help them get around, the dangers of certain road situations, etc. Use mishaps or near misses, self-regulation, or health changes as a lead in. For example, praising a senior for choosing to limit her driving to day time or discussing how the taking of a new medication may make them sleepier or less alert should be considered.

Observe the senior at the wheel. A conversation has far more meaning when the senior’s driving is experienced first hand. Seeing, for example, the senior become lost in familiar surroundings may be a sign of dementia and a reason in and of itself to get the senior to stop driving. Studies have shown that people are more willing to listen to those who have driven with them.

Investigate the alternatives to driving. Many seniors will see the loss of driving as the loss of independence and a blow to their social network. To make any decision more palatable, it is important to see what other options exist. Is there a bus or train line? Are there friends or relatives who can provide them with a ride? Can the children increase their visits?

Discuss your concerns with a doctor. It’s always easier to blame any decision on the doctor. A recommendation to stop driving that comes from the senior’s doctor usually carries more weight than when heard from the adult children.

If there is initial resistance, suggest that the older adult be tested for an assessment of their driving skills. These tests are commonly administered by rehabilitation centers, hospitals and VAs. Above all, be supportive. Adult children need to understand that this is more than just the loss of their car, but a clear blow to their freedom and independence. The transition can be a difficult one.

What if all these steps fail to get the desired response? Experts say that if a high-risk driver refuses to stop driving, the family may have no choice but to sell or disable the car or file down the keys.