Martin certainly appreciated his 88-year-old mother’s energy and independence. Engaged and mentally sharp, she continued to attend adult education classes, participate in church and community activities and regularly visit family and friends. Still he found himself worried about her safety when driving. It was the same anxiety he felt when his teenage daughter started driving. His mother drove her 10-year-old Cadillac everywhere, but over winter had been involved in two minor fender benders and a couple of near misses. In addition, he knew that she continued to drive on the interstate even though she was feeling increased anxiety about getting on and off the ramps.
He felt the time was fast approaching when she would have to quit driving. It was a conversation he knew he had to initiate, and one that he needed to do sooner rather than later. He was not sure what to say or, most importantly, how to say it in a way that would not insult her and yet have the desired effect of getter her to stop or seriously limit her driving.
Are Older Drivers At Risk?
In fact, seniors as a group are relatively safe drivers. The actual number of accidents involving older drivers decreases as age increases. Experts attribute this statistic to self-imposed limitations that include driving fewer miles and avoiding problematic situations like driving at night, during rush hour and on high speed roadways. That’s the good news. The bad news is that drivers over 75 have a higher risk of being involved in an accident for every mile they drive. The rate of fatalities increases significantly by this age – in fact, it is on par with teenage drivers.
So what can be done? According to AARP, ongoing conversations with family members can help. A survey of older adults found that more than half said they followed the suggestions of others, with women generally more compliant than men. They may prefer to hear it from their spouse (or from professionals like their doctor), but will listen to their adult children. Among individuals living alone, almost one third said they would prefer to hear about unsafe driving from their adult children (although another 15% ranked their children as the last ones they wanted to hear this from).
The survey found that one-quarter of all seniors reported responding with sadness when spoken to about their driving. While they may even agree with the assessment, they felt depressed at the thought of relinquishing this activity. After all the implications are significant – fewer trips outside the home, increased dependency on others, fewer social opportunities, and the fear of becoming a burden to others. Experts believe that while any discussions on driving are likely to be emotional for family members as well, they should not be put off. They suggest the following:
• Start with the appropriate conversation openers. Rather than tell a parent “you need to stop driving”, it is more effective to begin by talking about the importance of safety and health, other options that may be available to help them get around, the dangers of certain road situations, etc.
• Use mishaps or near misses, self-regulation, or health changes as a lead in. For example, praising a senior for choosing to limit driving during the daytime or discussing how taking a new medication may make them sleepy or less alert should be considered
• Observe the senior at the wheel. A conversation has far more meaning, when the senior’s driving is experienced firsthand. Seeing, for example, the senior become lost in familiar surroundings may be a sign of dementia and a reason to get the senior to stop driving. Studies have shown that people are more willing to listen to those who have driven with them.
• Investigate the alternatives to driving. Many seniors will see the loss of driving as the loss of independence and a blow to their social network. To make any decision more palatable, it is important to see what other options exist.
• Discuss your concerns with a doctor. A recommendation to stop driving that comes from a senior’s doctor usually carries more weight.
• If there is initial resistance, suggest that the older adult be tested for an assessment of their driving skills. These tests are commonly administered by rehabilitation centers, hospitals and the VA.
• Be supportive. Adult children need to understand that this is more than just the loss of their car, but a clear blow to their freedom and independence. The transition can be a difficult one.
What if all these steps fail to get the desired response? Experts say that if a high-risk driver refuses to stop driving, the family may have no choice but to sell or disable the car or file down the keys.
Meanwhile, Martin has started discussions with his mother, and has convinced her to eliminate her night driving and any driving on the interstate. She recently told him that she would consider selling the car – which thrilled Martin, until she added that she wanted to buy a car that got better mileage. He realizes it’s an ongoing process.