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How to Navigate Senior Driving: A Guide for Loved Ones

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Contrary to popular belief, senior drivers are safer than younger ones. They’re less likely to drink and drive or speed, and are more apt to use seat belts and follow road rules. In fact, according to police report data, drivers aged 16 to 17 were involved in almost six times as many crashes than seniors aged 70 to 74 and nearly three times than people over 85. Older adults 60- to 69-years-old had fewer accidents than any other age group. 

So why do people feel like senior driving is more dangerous? It’s not just about age; instead, it’s the physical and mental declines that can accompany it. While some 82-year-olds may be hiking the Appalachian trail, others are suffering to lift their foot onto the curb. 

How can seniors and loved ones know when it’s time to park the car for good? What are the ways caring family members can approach the issue with tact and sensitivity? And how can license-less older adults still maintain their mobility and independence? Read on to find out the answers to all these questions and more.

 

car

 

What challenges do senior drivers face?

Driving seems like an effortless task, but underneath appearances are a myriad of complicated processes happening in the brain and body to make it possible. The information processing alone makes it one of the most challenging activities people do regularly. 

Unfortunately, many senior drivers aren’t in good enough shape mentally or physically to handle the demands of driving. Seventeen percent of people in America between the ages of 75 and 84 have dementia, and almost a third of people 85 or older have Alzheimer’s. Millions of seniors are also afflicted with diseases that impair driving abilities such as cataracts, osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetic neuropathy, and joint stiffness. And while it’s a sedentary activity, being able to quickly turn your neck and back to check a blind spot or parallel park are essential for accident prevention.

 

What are the warning signs a senior shouldn’t drive?

There are many warning signs of unsafe senior driving adults can look for. These include: 

  • Frequent close calls or accidents
  • New dents, scratches, and dings on the car
  • Poor night vision (may require a day-only license)
  • Inability to keep up with the flow of traffic
  • Difficulties staying in the traffic lane or moving to a new one
  • Slowed response times in surprise situations
  • Increase in traffic violations
  • Frequent fearfulness or anxiety while driving
  • Decreased confidence in driving ability
  • Often being honked at while behind the wheel
  • Frequently stating that cars and people appeared out of nowhere
  • Getting lost on familiar roads

If you’ve seen some of these warning signs in an aging parent or grandparent, it’s time to chat with them about their driving future. 

  talking on the phone

 

How do you talk to an aging loved one about not driving anymore? 

 

Start the conversation about senior driving early

If you notice any unsafe driving signs, it’s essential to discuss them with your senior parent. It will help make them more conscious of their driving and potentially realize that they aren’t as good as they used to be. They may even reach the conclusion they aren’t fit to drive anymore by themselves. 

Also, rather than having to tell them to give up driving in one fell swoop, you may be able to negotiate driving restrictions based on the unsafe driving you noticed. This may mean no driving at night or in bad weather or only driving locally. When the time comes to turn over their license, it won’t be as much of a shock if they had already been driving less.     

 

talking
 

Understand why it’s an emotionally-charged discussion

 
To have a productive conversation with an elderly parent, it’s important to understand what senior driving means to them. 

Many of us remember our first car. It may have been a clunker with a peeling paint job, a temperamental starter, and a non-functioning A/C. Or, we may have been lucky enough to have been given the keys to a shiny new car as a graduation present, red bow and all. Regardless of what car you had, it was still the ultimate symbol of independence, freedom, and passage into adulthood. 

For seniors, a vehicle still represents all these things and is a way to age in place and keep their mobility. Taking the car away feels like they’re losing a lifeline, and some may feel like they’re being treated as a child. The sting is only made worse when it comes after a series of other losses—such as vision, hearing, and agility—that make it undeniable their bodies are aging.

It’s essential to keep these feelings in mind as you try to lead a discussion about senior driving so that you speak from a place of compassion. It may help aging parents remember you love them and want the best for them, making them more open to hearing from you. 
 

Lay out the risks

Elderly drivers might be in denial about the hazards of unsafe driving to themselves and others. It can be helpful to spell out the facts. Remind them that seniors have a harder time physically and mentally recovering from accidents. And it’s bad enough if they hurt themselves, but if they end up hurting someone else? They may never forgive themselves, and the family of the injured person may not either. On top of dealing with grief and guilt, they may also have to face lawsuits that wipe out their retirement account or cost them their house. 

If you need more guidance structuring your discussion, AARP has a seminar called “We Need to Talk” that can help make your chat together as productive as possible.

 

thinking

 

What to do if your elderly parent refuses to stop driving?

Most seniors can judge for themselves when it’s time to retire their license. Vision loss, for instance, is often obvious. But other changes, like cognitive decline, are more subtle and difficult to detect. Whether it’s due to normal aging or diseases like Alzheimer’s, some seniors are unaware they don’t have the mental ability anymore to drive safely on roads. 

If you’ve tried speaking to your senior parent about their unsafe driving, even reasoning or pleading with them, but they still refuse to quit driving, an objective opinion from an authority figure might be the answer. A Consumer Reports survey of senior drivers state they are least likely to stop driving based on advice from family. The top two reasons seniors would give up their license were if they sensed they were endangering themselves or others and if a doctor said they should. 

With that in mind, here are some things you can do to get them to stop driving:
 

Take them to a physician 

Have the doctor check their health while you describe your concerns and unsafe driving signs you’ve noticed. The doctor may order them to temporarily stop driving based on preliminary findings or ask them not to drive until all results from the work-up are in. Then the doctor can offer to reassess at the next visit. Having the physician frame it this way is an easier pill to swallow than being told they can never drive again. 

Also, when the doctor examines them and shows them in black and white that it’s dangerous for them to operate a vehicle, they might accept what they denied with you. 
 

Schedule a driving assessment 

Make an appointment with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. If they fail any of the tests, there’s no question they’re unfit to drive. And thankfully, you won’t have to be the one taking away the license. 
 

What if they pass all the tests?

If the doctor and DMV say they’re fine to drive, you may not need to be so concerned about your senior parent’s ability to drive safely. Although it can be scary to see aging parents behind the wheel, consider that they’ve passed a physical with the doctor and a driving test. You can have them reassessed yearly to feel reassured they are still safe behind the wheel. 

But what if dings on the car and multiple close calls tell a different story? What if there’s already been an accident? 

Be firm and stand your ground.

If you know and have seen they’re too much of a risk on the road, you may have to take matters into your own hands. You can hide the keys, make the car inoperable by disconnecting the battery, or remove the vehicle from their home by saying you need to borrow it. You can also ask a doctor to write a letter to take to the DMV or file a DMV report. 

Though these actions are painful for both you and your aging loved one, they are a last resort to protect their safety and the safety of those around them while they’re out on the road.
 

driving
 

How can former senior drivers get around if they can’t drive? 

Handing over a license seems like a death sentence to many seniors. But, the reality is there’s an abundance of programs available today aimed at helping aging adults keep their mobility and independence when driving is no longer an option. Some alternatives include:

National and state senior driving services

The Caregiver Space has an extensive list of national and state-specific driving services for seniors. One of the services available nationally, Independent Transportation Network (ITN), is a nonprofit organization matching seniors who need a ride with a volunteer driver. No matter where they want to go or how many stops they need to make, the agent on the phone coordinates the entire trip. The service is free for low-income seniors, and others pay an affordable rate. Only two percent of older adults surveyed felt the service was too costly. 

You can see if they’re available in your loved one’s area here
 

Ride-booking services

Uber and Lyft crippled the taxi industry by offering more affordable, on-demand driving services from a smartphone platform. But, some seniors are hesitant to use ride-booking services because of the technology involved. 

Thankfully, smartphone companies geared toward seniors have a solution. Companies like GreatCall make it easy to get a ride with Lyft by dialing “0” to speak with a personal operator. What if seniors don’t have a smartphone at all? Services like GoGo allow customers to dial a number to request a Lyft or Uber or have one of their operators do it instead. 
 
 
eye exam
 

What are safe senior driving tips for older adults?

 

1. Keep full attention on the road

A study found that nearly 80 percent of senior drivers will lose control of their vehicle when distracted. For comparison, only 40 percent of 20- to 30-year-olds are likely to do the same. There’s no question that people should never text and drive, but older adults should also consider speaking on the phone only when they aren’t driving. They should also avoid glancing or fiddling with in-car media screens. 
 

2. Have regular vision and hearing screenings

Eye diseases commonly affecting seniors, like cataracts and glaucoma, can make it difficult to see well while driving, especially at night. These vision problems are more treatable when diagnosed early, so it’s crucial to have vision screenings annually or when seniors notice a change in their eyesight. Eye doctors may recommend only driving in the daytime if they detect poor night vision. 

Good hearing is also essential to staying safe on the road. Failing to hear an approaching ambulance or train can have devastating consequences. Seniors should have a hearing screening every three years or sooner if they suspect they have impaired hearing. 
 

3. Manage and monitor chronic conditions

Aging adults should work with doctors and follow treatment plans to manage existing conditions. Diseases like diabetes can cause fatal accidents when people enter into diabetic shock or experience a diabetic seizure while behind the wheel. 

Other health issues like arthritis can make it painful to quickly turn the wheel to avoid another car or obstacle in the road. Families can consider how existing health concerns impact a senior’s driving and compensate for them as much as possible. For example, devices like a steering wheel spinner knob or a steering wheel cover with more grip make driving more comfortable. Depending on their limitations, you may even determine another type of vehicle would better suit them. 

It’s also crucial to know a medication’s side effects and which ones don’t allow for driving. Many drugs cause drowsiness or affect reflexes and coordination. These include pain relievers, antidepressants, antihistamines, and muscle relaxants. Seniors shouldn’t operate vehicles while these drugs are in their system. 
 

4. Drive under optimal conditions

Risks for accidents significantly decrease when older adults avoid driving in unfavorable weather conditions like rain or snow or stick to routes they know. It’s also safer if they drive in the daytime or take an alternate type of transportation if they don’t feel well, are tired, or are emotional. Being angry or sad can lead to distracted driving, which we’ve mentioned is especially dangerous for seniors. 
 

5. Take a driving refresher course for seniors

Doing a driver improvement course has the double benefit of updating a senior’s driving skills, as well as fetching a discount on most car insurance policies. They can take classes online or in a classroom, and will learn more than just modern road rules. Other topics covered include defensive driving techniques, how to drive in today’s difficult driving conditions, and tools to manage common ailments like hearing and vision changes. 

 
phone
 

How can you report unsafe senior driving? 

If you see dangerous senior driving on the road, it’s essential to say something. It’s the only way to keep senior drivers and those around them safe. AAA’s website lists how you can report a driver in your state. Once on the site, find your state and click on the “reporting a potential unsafe driver” tab for more information. 
 

Having seniors hang up their keys doesn’t have to mean hanging up their freedom

It can be emotionally and mentally difficult for seniors to hand over their driver’s license because they fear losing their mobility, independence, and freedom. Fortunately, technology has transformed the senior transportation landscape, and there are more options available for their age group than ever. 

Aging adults might even be surprised to find they like the alternatives better than senior driving. They can finally read or catch up with friends while they travel. Or, they can meet and chat with new people during their transit. They also don’t have to worry about costly repairs, accidents, or car breakdowns. In fact, instead of limiting their freedom, they might realize that hanging up their keys is the most freeing thing they ever did.

 

 

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