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Senior Driving: How to discuss turning in the car keys

Two senior drivers sitting in a car

Many adults dread the idea of approaching elderly parents with a discussion about their driving. It’s not easy to suggest to a parent who once was an ace behind the wheel that he or she consider limiting their driving to, say, daytime motoring only. It’s even tougher to suggest that they cease driving altogether—for both their safety and that of other motorists. 

In a survey conducted for the site Caring.com, two in five adults said they would not be comfortable discussing driving status with their parents. One survey respondent explained the difficulty: “This is not an easy subject, I feel that they would think they were having their freedom taken away, and of course they would probably think they were going to become a burden to those who would have to take over the driving for them.”

But with longer lifespans, more adults than ever before are outliving their driving ability. Elizabeth Dugan, associate professor of gerontology at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and author of "The Driving Dilemma: The Complete Resource Guide for Older Drivers and Their Families", reports that most elderly drivers will be behind the wheel about 10 years longer than they should. 

That creates a dangerous situation, for both elderly drivers and others on the road. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fatal crash rates start increasing among drivers 70 and older, with the highest rate of fatal crashes seen in drivers 85 and older. 

If you are a driver who is over the age of 80, or if you are over the age of 70 and have had an increasing number of traffic accidents or near-misses, it might be time to step back and take an objective look at whether driving is still in your best interest. And, if you are the child of an aging driver, there are ways to discuss this topic in a manner that will keep feelings from being hurt or having your intentions misunderstood. 

Be caring while expressing concerns

Talking to parents or other elderly loved ones about giving up or limiting their driving has to be approached with compassion and sensitivity.

“It’s a tricky situation,” acknowledges Huldah Sullivan, a Nebraska-based eldercare expert who has worked in long-term-care facilities since 1981. “If you can get the family doctor involved, that’s always best, because you can approach it from a medical or safety standpoint.”

However, it’s not always possible to get a medical provider on board. In that case, you’ll want to make a list of concerns and keep track of incidents supporting your reasoning behind the discussion. It’s important to make sure the elderly driver knows that you’re concerned rather than feeling as if they’re being judged or punished. 

Make safety the priority

Sometimes, elderly drivers may react poorly to the request and refuse to curb their driving habits. If all respectful and reasonable efforts fail, Sullivan says filing an “unsafe driver” report with your local Department of Motor Vehicles is a way to approach the situation when there are no other options. 

Although the procedure and rules vary from one state to the next, the DMV will contact drivers with diminished skills and ask them to get a medical evaluation before allowing them to drive again. The agency may also require them to take a driving test.

Then the DMV will determine if your parent or loved one will be allowed to continue driving. In some cases, they may place restrictions on the driver, such as not allowing them to drive after dark or on highways.

Present alternative options

“You have to remember that for most people driving represents freedom,” Sullivan says. Many elderly adults fear that giving up the keys will substantially impair their independence.

“It helps if you approach them with transportation options instead of just trying to get them to give it up,” she says. “Sometimes you can find friends or people in their [community] who are willing to take them to run errands or go places.”

She adds that most communities have some sort of bus or van service that will take seniors to places ranging from the doctor to the grocery store to the shopping mall.

“If you can show them that they can still go do the things they want to do, it makes the situation a lot easier for everyone,” Sullivan says. And, instead of feeling like they are losing autonomy, they may actually look forward to the added camaraderie their new situation provides. 

If you’re an older driver, you may want to start looking into what services are available to make the transition to a car-free lifestyle easier. This may include using ride-sharing services more frequently, particularly at night when it may be more difficult to see. Some communities also provide special vans and buses for seniors to use for appointments and errands. 

With the right resources, seniors can maintain their independence and stay safe without too much of an impact to their daily routines.

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