Caregiver's Corner: Putting the Red Light on Driving: How to have a conversation about driving with your loved one
By: Andrea Miller - MSW Intern at Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan
I think we all remember how it first felt at 16 to get behind the wheel after getting your license. Driving a car represents independence and accessible escapism. But age and declining health often abruptly slam the brakes on that freedom. According to the CDC, adults above the age of 75 have higher crash rates, and due to their physical frailty, older adult drivers are more likely to be killed in a crash, according to AAA (Beabout, 2021). But talking to a loved one about retiring from driving isn’t easy as there’s a lot of emotion involved. So, if you’re concerned about whether they should still be driving, get ready to do some homework.
It’s important to first know if your worries are valid. It’s all-important to note that age alone is not a reason to ask someone to give up the car keys. Impaired vision, cognition, and motor function (physical strength and endurance) are the three most common reasons for unsafe driving. Because of this, you should look for specific examples that support your concerns. If you don’t regularly get in the car with your parent behind the wheel, it is recommended to take a ride together. Sollitto (2021) has shared a list of warning signs of unsafe driving:
- Drifting into other lanes.
- Straddling lanes.
- Making sudden lane changes.
- Ignoring or missing stop signs and traffic signals.
- Increased confusion while driving in traffic.
- Braking or stopping abruptly without cause.
- Accelerating suddenly without reason.
- Coasting to a near stop amid moving traffic.
- Pressing simultaneously on the brake and accelerator pedals while driving.
- Difficulty seeing pedestrians, objects, and other vehicles.
- Increasing levels of anxiety while driving.
- Driving significantly slower than the posted speed limit or general speed of other vehicles.
- Backing up after missing an exit or turn.
- Difficulty reacting quickly and/or processing multiple stimuli.
- Problems with back/neck flexibility and turning to see traffic/hazards around the car.
- Getting lost or disoriented easily, even in familiar places.
- Failing to use turn signals or keeping signals on without changing lanes.
- Increased “close calls” and “near misses.”
- Receipt of two or more traffic citations or warnings in the past two years.
- Dents and scrapes on their car or on surrounding objects where they drive and park at home, such as fences, mailboxes, garage doors and curbs.
If after you have driven around with your loved one a few times and notice any of the above actions happening consistently when they are behind the wheel, it is probably time for a conversation. However, it is important to form a united front with any partners or siblings who share your concerns. Talk to your partner or siblings about specific safety concerns and how to approach the topic, as this will lay the groundwork for a successful conversation. Talking to any adult about giving up their driving privileges can be stressful. If possible, choose a family member with a close, respectful relationship to introduce the subject. If their spouse is still alive, it is recommended that they bring up the conversation as older adults are nearly twice as likely to listen to driving concerns from their spouses versus their adult children.
But how does one go about starting the conversation? Here are some conversation-starters:
- “How are you feeling about driving?” Opening the conversation with a question like this allows the parent to reveal unspoken concerns about driving. In that scenario, you have an opportunity to come up with solutions together.
- “I know this is hard to talk about, but I’m concerned for your safety and the safety of others on the road. What are your thoughts?” Though this is a more pointed opener, it keeps the initial focus on the parent’s thoughts and feelings.
- “What signs would tell you that you should think about giving up driving?” This logical approach puts the onus on the parent and their sense of responsibility.
- “Do you recall doing ____?” Beginning the conversation with a clear example of unsafe driving helps focus the conversation on the actions rather than the person. You can refer to the list provided above if you’d like.
Regardless of the words you use to voice concern, compassion is essential. Other tips for a successful conversation include being empathetic; Remembering to respectfully listen to and acknowledge your loved one’s emotions – from sadness to outrage to fear. For many older adults, this conversation is a major blow to the ego. Staying objective is also important. The conversation should focus on driving behaviors, not age or personality (Beabout, 2021).
If the decision is made that the older adult should no longer be driving, discussing alternatives for mobility need to be a part of the conversation. Make sure to offer alternatives, such as driving them yourself, or arranging for other family members, neighbors, or friends to assist. In some communities, there is public transportation available, or there are also ridesharing apps available. It is also important to be open to other solutions other than the older adult not driving again. Not all situations warrant surrendering the car keys for good. For instance, if a parent is getting drowsy behind the wheel, their doctor might be able to tweak their medications. Sometimes adjusting the seat or mirrors can also help. CarFit through AARP is a program that helps older drivers assess and adjust their vehicles for comfort and safety.
With a conversation like this, there is always the possibility that the older adult refuses to give up the keys no matter what. If this happens there are a few options like talking with their medical professional. If an older adult refuses to listen to family members’ concerns, enlist the help of their primary care physician, optometrist, or occupational therapist. A candid talk mediated by a doctor can help many older adults understand the medical and safety issues with erratic driving behaviors. Another option is to schedule a driving reassessment. You can do this by contacting the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) to request a driving reassessment. (Sollitto, 2021).
When it comes down to it, no one wants to think about the day when they give up their car keys for good. That’s why like most things, taking a preventative approach by discussing driving retirement before it becomes a problem is recommended. Adults of all ages can benefit from making plans to maintain mobility and independence that also takes both their safety and others into consideration.
Caregiver's Corner is provided as a public service of the Caregiver Resource Network. The Caregiver Resource Network collaborates with West Michigan organizations dedicated to providing for the needs and welfare of family and professional caregivers within the community. It is funded by the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan with Older Americans' Act Title IIIE, Family Caregiver Support funds.
For more information on Family Caregiver University classes provided by the Caregiver Resource Network, please call (888) 456-5664 or visit www.caregiverresource.net
Sollitto, M. (2021). 20 warning signs an elderly driver is no longer safe behind the wheel. Aging Care. https://www.agingcare.com/articles/signs-elder-unsafe-driver-153264.htm
Beabout, L., (2021) Discussing driving with your aging parent: How to proceed with care and compassion. Care.com https://www.care.com/c/how-to-talk-to-a-parent-about-driving/
Link to CarFit Virtual Workshops & Focus Session: https://aarp.cvent.com/c/calendar/7f9e9e0c-224c-4ac0-99f4-e1512c5347ed