Helping older adults transition from drivers to passengers can be a sensitive topic. “The loss of independence is what they fear most,” notes Mark Blum of BrightStar Care.
So local home health care providers recommend being proactive—having the conversation about no longer driving before it becomes an issue. According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, seniors are safer drivers compared to teenagers. However, older drivers are more likely to be killed or critically injured when involved in an accident.
Blum says seniors, especially those who are experiencing the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, may not be able to recognize they no longer can drive safely. “Family members should look for signs of unsafe driving, such as forgetting how to locate familiar places, making mistakes or becoming angry or confused while driving,” he notes.
Scott Seabaugh, of Home Assist, says the most difficult part of dealing with the issue can be starting the discussion. “We encourage our families to establish an open dialogue with their parents, citing statistics that show only 25 percent of older adults find the conversation uncomfortable,” Seabaugh notes. He recommends first using these phrases and questions:
• People just don’t drive as safely out there as they did before...
• When did your parents stop driving?
• What effect does your medication have on your driving?
Blum says to also get the physician involved. “Sometimes (a senior) won’t listen to a spouse, sibling or adult child, but when it comes from a doctor that they are no longer safe on the road, they typically respond.”
Prior to the conversation, Blum adds that it is important to have solutions in place from other resources, in order to shift the elder driver's concerns away from feelings related to their loss of independence. Home care agencies can assist with the conversation, as well as offer transportation using the person's own car or a company vehicle. “We take them to go shopping or to the hair salon—not just to and from doctor’s appointments. It helps their morale,” Blum explains.
Experts say it can take multiple conversations to find the best solution for each individual. “Often the discussions reveal problems that can be solved easily, perhaps by taking a refresher driving course," Seabaugh says. “And physical problems can be overcome. If a driver can no longer see over the steering wheel, a pillow can boost them; if they’re too inflexible to look over their shoulder when changing lanes, physical therapy might help. If they feel uncomfortable with the speed of freeway traffic, they can limit their driving to surface streets.”
But experts agree, older drivers should not be left to decide for themselves when it is time to stop driving. “It's never OK to ignore a problem because 'mom only drives to the store' or to 'wait until there's an accident,'” Seabaugh notes. “It can be a fatal (mistake).”