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How to talk to elderly parents about driving

Woman talking to a senior citizen about driving safety Photo by Adobe Stock Image

The struggle over age-related driving issues is all too common. For example, more than 80 percent of older adults never speak to a family member or physician about their ability to drive safely, according to a AAA study. Following these basic steps might help pave the way for any needed changes in an older adult’s driving routine.

1. Have an ongoing conversation, not “The Talk.”

Mobility planning should be as much a part of retirement planning as health care, housing, and finances—and the conversation should start early. “As we age, we all develop some health issues that interfere with driving,” says Dr. Linda Hill, director of the Center for Human and Urban Mobility at University of California, San Diego. “Families and older drivers should begin talking about driving retirement well before it’s needed, when egos and emotions are less of an issue.” 

Anita Lorz Villagrana, a AAA community affairs and traffic-safety manager, adds, “Avoid an intervention. Instead, talk openly and respectfully. Ride along with your aging family members so you can see if their driving skills are changing. Driving isn’t an age-based function, but rather a skills-based function. Also, make sure you know what medications your older family member is taking, and how it might affect their driving.” 

2. Sharpen skills and seek solutions.

Many AAA programs and courses are available for older drivers. For example, CarFit is a no-cost AAA program that provides a quick, comprehensive assessment of how well older drivers and their vehicle “fit” together. Technicians guide participants through a checklist to correctly adjust such things as mirror position and the distance between chest and steering wheel. A second program, Adult Skills Audit, is a fee-based, behind-the-wheel assessment by a licensed instructor for adults who want to review and refresh their driving skills. It’s available only in California and Northern New England. Both programs might be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic; for more information, go to aaa.com/defensivedriving.

Another option: Consulting with an occupational therapist or a driving-rehabilitation specialist. “These professionals are highly trained to enhance safety and comfort behind the wheel, so that older adults can remain independent as long as is safely possible,” says Elin Schold Davis, project manager of the American Occupational Therapy Association’s Older Driver Initiative. 

3. Recruit support.

Many older drivers just don’t want to hear about problems with their driving from their kids. Friends and other relatives, especially their peers, often carry more clout. Doctors, too, can play an especially important role. “Physicians are crucial participants in supporting older drivers and their families,” UCSD’s Hill says.

4. Plan for transportation options.

Seniors need to know that giving up the keys won’t leave them stranded. This means not only getting family members to pitch in as drivers, but also helping senior drivers explore public transportation options, ride-sharing resources, and other community services.

5. Take your time selling the car.

Older drivers often take comfort just knowing their car is there, even if they never drive it. Most experts agree that, except for ex-drivers with Alzheimer’s or dementia, keeping the car often helps seniors make the transition.

Signs of unsafe driving

You can’t answer the question by age alone. “Each older driver has a biological age, due to medical conditions and medications, that may vary significantly from chronological age,” Hill says.

 “Despite what people may think, older drivers are among the safest drivers on the road,” Villagrana says. “They often voluntarily limit or restrict their driving and avoid high-risk driving situations, such as driving at night, in bad weather, or during peak traffic times.” 

Nevertheless, aging does affect driving ability in three areas: perceptual (especially deteriorating vision), physical (loss of strength and flexibility), and cognitive (diminished or slowed mental processing). Experts say that any of the following signs should raise concerns about an individual driver’s safety:  

  • Unexplained dents and scrapes on their vehicle, mailbox, or garage door.
  • Showing poor judgment at intersections or having difficulty judging gaps in traffic when making left turns or at freeway entrance and exit ramps.
  • Getting lost or confused on familiar roads and neighborhoods.
  • Feeling uncomfortable or anxious while driving.
  • Delayed responses to unexpected driving situations (for example, a sudden stop in traffic or encountering an unexpected object in the street).
  • Difficulty staying in his or her travel lane or traveling too far to the right or too close to parked cars.
  • An increased number of “close calls” or “near misses.”
  • Difficulty paying attention to signals, road signs, and pavement markings.

Resources for and about older drivers

AAA Programs and Resources

  • Seniordriving.aaa.com. This content-rich website serves as AAA’s clearinghouse for information and resources on senior driving.
  • Roadwise Driver. This fee-based online class for drivers age 55 and older provides tools and techniques to help hone their driving skills. Drivers might qualify for an insurance discount upon completing the course.
  • Keeping the Keys. A free, hour-long in-person or virtual educational workshop aimed at helping keep older drivers on the road as long as is safely possible. The course covers how driving abilities change with age, how medications might impact driving, and provides resources to help extend driving. 
  • RoadwiseRx. This free AAA online tool helps older drivers determine if the medications they’re taking might affect their ability to drive safely.

Additional organizations and programs

  • American Occupational Therapy Association (type “driver resources” into the search box). In addition to offering an online directory of certified driving-rehabilitation therapists, AOTA’s website provides links to resources such as community-based transportation programs. 
  • Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists. This organization has an online directory of certified driver rehabilitation specialists and driver rehabilitation specialists, searchable by state.
  • Eldercare Locator (800-677-1116) is a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging. It offers free downloadable publications plus a localized directory of transportation resources.

Joseph D. Younger has written about automotive topics for more than three decades.

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