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Taking The Car Keys Away From Elderly Parents

Learn to recognize the physical and mental signs in seniors’ driving that signal it may no longer be safe for older loved ones to get behind the wheel.

By Kathy N. Johnson, PhD, CMC

Many older adults are capable of driving safely, even into their 70s and 80s. But people age differently. Several factors place seniors at much greater risk for road accidents and affect seniors’ driving ability. More importantly, a person 70 or older involved in a car accident is more likely to be seriously hurt, require hospitalization or die than a younger person involved in the same crash.

"A person 70 or older involved in a car accident is more likely to be seriously hurt, require hospitalization or die than a younger person involved in the same crash."

Knowing the risk factors and warning signs of an older loved one who has become unable to safely operate a vehicle will help you gauge when it’s time to take away the keys. There are also strategies to help you talk to seniors sensitively about giving up driving and present them with practical transportation alternatives.
 

Changes That Can Adversely Affect Seniors’ Driving Ability

     
  • Visual decline: These include poor depth perception, narrowed peripheral vision, poor judgment of speed and poor night vision, along with increased sensitivity to bright sunlight, headlights and glare.
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  • Hearing loss: Of particular concern to seniors’ driving ability is the inability to hear important warning sounds while driving.
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  • Limited mobility and decreased flexibility: These both increase response time, slow pedal selection and steering control, and limit the ability to turn one’s head to look for hazards.
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  • Chronic conditions: Rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, sleep apnea, heart disease or diabetes can impair seniors’ driving ability and skills, even suddenly.
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  • Medications: Older people often take more medications; this, in combination or taken with alcohol, can result in risky, unpredictable and dangerous side effects and drug interactions.
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  • Drowsiness: This effect on seniors’ driving ability is often due to medication side-effects or sleep difficulties that come with age, resulting in daytime tiredness and an increased tendency to doze off during the day (or while driving)
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  • Dementia or brain impairment: This makes seniors’ driving more dangerous and more frustrating. It can also cause delayed reactions and confusion on the road.

Warning Signals That Say “Stay Off The Road”

According to the National Institute on Aging, there are several critical indications that a senior may be losing the judgment or ability to drive.

     
  • Incompetent driving at night, even if competent during the day
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  • Drastically reduced peripheral vision, even if 20/20 with corrective lenses
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  • Struggling to drive at high speed even if he or she drives well locally at slow speeds
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  • Erratic driving, such as abrupt lane changes, braking or acceleration, hitting curbs, missing turns or scaring pedestrians
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  • Getting lost frequently, even while driving on familiar roads
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  • Trouble reading street signs or navigating directions
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  • Frequently startled, claiming that cars or pedestrians seem to appear out of nowhere
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  • At-fault accidents or more frequent near-crashes or dents and scrapes on the car or on fences, mailboxes, garage doors, and curbs
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  • Failing to use turn signals or keeping them on without changing lanes
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  • Drifting into other lanes or driving on the wrong side of the road
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  • Range-of-motion issues, such as failing to look over the shoulder, trouble shifting gears or confusing gas and brake pedals
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  • Increased traffic tickets or “warnings” by traffic or law enforcement officers

When It’s Time To Hang Up The Keys

Talking to a relative about his or her need to stop driving is one of the most difficult discussions you may ever face. However, it’s better if it comes in the form of advice from you or someone he or she knows rather than by an order from a judge or the DMV. One of the main reasons seniors are reluctant to give up driving is that it is one of the few ways they can continue to feel self-sufficient. The discussion becomes even more difficult when the person still maintains most of his or her faculties, just not those that enable safe driving.
 

It helps to have a thoughtful, caring plan in place before saying anything, says Harriet Vines, author of Age Smart: How to Age Well, Stay Fit and Be Happy (http://www.agesmart.us). She suggests:

     
  • Be empathetic. “Imagine how you would feel if you were in your parent’s place,” Vines says. Ask others to join in the meeting. It helps to involve other family members in the discussion to help, but not to confront.
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  • Keep the conversation non-accusatory, honest and between “adults,” not “child and parent.” Say things like, “We’re concerned,” “We care” or “We don’t want you to get hurt or to hurt others.” Once you’ve both come to an agreement, you can continue to support your loved one in ways beyond just offering rides.
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  • Encourage the senior to use positive language to describe their situation to others and help them gain comfort in asking for assistance.
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  • Help the senior make a schedule. He or she can plan activities and combine trips on days when a caregiver can drive.