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Seniors Behind The Wheel:  Helping Elderly Parents Transition From Driver To Passenger

By Rebecca J. Stigall

Decades ago, luxury accommodations such as power steering and power brakes made driving easier and safer for elderly drivers. As these features became standard on nearly every vehicle manufactured in the United States, additional accommodations that targeted the specific needs of older drivers were integrated into many vehicles. Adaptations to seats, doorways, handles, knobs, steering wheels and seat belts helped elderly drivers manage the physical process of driving. Yet, even though several studies have suggested that vehicle design concentrate on the physical needs of older drivers by incorporating additional vehicle modification possibilities and smart technology into every vehicle, such modifications currently target only the physical needs of elderly drivers. Anyone caring for and concerned about an aging parent knows that awareness of how the physical needs of drivers change as people age is only part of the issues that face aging drivers.
 

Driving Equals Freedom For The Elderly

Elderly drivers face many constraints that vehicle modifications can't address. In addition to dealing with issues such as fatigue, vision problems, maneuverability problems, hearing loss, medications, arthritis and other debilitating health problems, elderly drivers must also combat confusion, anxiety, frustration, memory loss, a reduced ability to multitask, diminished concentration and information overload, especially in high-traffic situations. Any one of these factors can significantly impact an individual's ability to make it from point A to point B safely. Combined, they can be deadly. Therefore, it's important to know when, and how, to transition our aging parents from driver to passenger, at the same time maintaining their self-esteem, sense of independence and, most importantly, freedom.
 

"According to the National Safety Council, adult children would rather talk to parents about funeral plans than about taking away car keys."
 

Helping Ease The Transition

According to the National Safety Council, adult children would rather talk to parents about funeral plans than about taking away car keys. Although many seniors may willingly phase out night driving when they find it impossible to see where they're going, many do not recognize when it's time to give up driving for good. Children and caretakers can help aging parents make the transition as smooth as possible by keeping these important points in mind:

  • Use compassion. Remember that seniors often associate driving with independence and freedom. Understanding their resistance to relinquishing control over driving can make the transition easier.
  • Transition gradually. Seniors are more accepting of change that happens slowly.  Try making yourself available once a week to drive an aging parent to the doctor, on errands or to recreational activities. It also helps to coordinate other transportation options such as carpooling, community transportation and even alternate methods of obtaining goods and services such as home delivery and internet shopping.
  • Make financial sense. Owning and operating a vehicle can be expensive, especially for those on a fixed income. Car payments, repair costs, fuel, insurance and registration fees all add up. Giving up the car can make seniors feel more financially secure as much needed income will no longer need to be diverted to auto expenses.
  • Talk about safety. Some seniors don't realize that they have become unsafe drivers.  Riding along with an elderly parent to assess driving skills can become a catalyst for a conversation on driving safety. 
  • Enlist expert help. Many motor vehicle bureaus have elderly assessment services and senior driving courses that can help you and your aging parent understand and cope with changes in driving abilities. Even a parent who passes the standard vision exam during license renewal can be assessed for driving ability if the bureau worker suspects there might be issues that could prevent the individual from meeting minimum driving safety requirements. The individual's doctor can also issue a prescription barring the senior from driving if physical and mental issues could cloud judgment and ability.
  • Take the keys. If all else fails, it might become necessary to confiscate the keys to a parent's vehicle. This option is imperative if a senior doesn't remember that he or she is not supposed to drive. In such a case, removing the vehicle altogether or disabling it might become the best move.
     

 



     
  • Vehicle accommodations can help seniors handle the physical task of driving
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  • Physical and mental health issues can prevent seniors from being safe drivers
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  • Transitioning an aging parent from driver to passenger takes compassion and planning.