Senior drivers and road safety: having the conversation

Posted May 30, 2011, at 9:51 p.m.

Driving equals independence. For teenagers, having a driver’s license means no longer relying on parents for rides. For the elderly, it means not relying on adult children for transportation. If a question arises regarding unsafe driving, parents can take away the teenager’s car keys. But when driver is elderly, with all the rights that adulthood bestows, the answer is not so clearly defined.

As with everything in life, driving ability is very individualized. But as we age, our skill level does tend to deteriorate. While some people drive into their 90s, others may be unable to stay behind the wheel.

Some of the age-related deterioration can be counteracted by taking driving classes or one-on-one lessons that provide compensation techniques to keep seniors safely on the road longer.

For elderly drivers and those close to them, there are some warning signs that indicate the possibility of unsafe driving practices. These include riding the brake; finding scrapes or dents on the car, mailbox or garage; hitting curbs; abrupt lane changes; increased citations; confusing the gas and brake pedals; increased nervousness or frustration when driving; and frequent horn-honking from other drivers.

Approaching an independent elderly friend or family member about driving safety is not  easy, but it is necessary for their safety and the safety of other drivers.

Many seniors recognize that they are having problems with driving and make the decision themselves to restrict time on the road, such as curtailing night driving, avoiding the interstate and only using familiar routes.

But there also are those seniors who see nothing wrong with their driving ability and fiercely defend their right to stay behind the wheel.

Outside support can be a key component when beginning this discussion. A parent may not be willing to listen to such personal advice from their “kid,” but a doctor, driving instructor or clergy person may have better luck. In addition,   AAA has advice about starting that conversation at www.aaaseniors.com.

It is important to demonstrate that you fully understand how important driving is to to the senior in your life. Remember the emotional and physical loss of independence that will ensue if they give up their keys. For example, think about the strain and inconvenience of having your car in the shop for repairs or maintenance. Imagine this inconvenience not being temporary but permanent, which is effectively what you are proposing to your elder loved one. Also be aware that once the senior no longer drives, you may find yourself being a chauffeur on a regular basis.

Have an idea of what kind of public transportation is available in the senior’s area, including buses, taxis and agency services. Think about how much time you, other family members and friends can provide to the senior’s schedule of important rides, such as grocery shopping, medical visits, church, meetings or social events.

Try not to get into a heated discussion but instead stay calm. Regardless of your frustration level, trying to lecture or scold your loved one into giving up driving is probably not going to end well.

Also, devise a plan to prevent the senior from becoming isolated and lonely. This may involve more family visits. Above all, remind your loved one that this conversation comes out of love and concern and that you will continue to be supportive and involved in this difficult transition.

Carol Higgins Taylor is director of communications at Eastern Area Agency on Aging.  Email her at chtaylor@eaaa.org.

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