by Carol Taylor Higgins
Eastern Area Agency on Aging
Mainers are life-long drivers. But what happens when getting behind the wheel is no longer an issue of personal freedom but of personal safety? And what about the safety of other motorists? How do you talk to a loved one about this very real problem?
These are the questions that plague adult children and families when safe driving becomes troublesome for an elder. Sometimes these driving difficulties can be the first sign of dementia.
People may get lost while going somewhere familiar, like the same grocery store that has been patronized for years. Or they are employing unsafe driving practices, such as tailgating and not using turn signals.
For example, a person’s attention span, distance perception or the ability to process information can make it difficult to respond safely in potentially hazardous driving situations.
But how to approach the subject with an independent loved one who most likely is unaware of the hazards or is unwilling to discuss them?
Well, it can be hard to judge the appropriate time to have the conversation. And for many adult children this is a new role. They never have been in a position of telling their parents what to do, yet there is an inherent responsibility resting on their shoulders to protect the parent and others who may be in harm’s way.
The challenge, then, is to preserve a person’s sense of independence for as long as possible, while simultaneously protecting the safety of that of those around them.
Being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another kind of dementia will not automatically get a person’s license pulled, nor should it. However, since it is often difficult to determine when someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia becomes a danger on the road, it is up to the family and the person’s health care provider to start the conversation and in some cases make the decision to end the person’s driving.
Whether the driver has dementia or not, here are some questions to indicate warning signs that driving may be hazardous:
• Is the person riding the brake?
• Is he or she easily distracted while driving.
• Do other drivers often honk horns at you?
• Does the driver hit curbs regularly.
• Check out the car. Are there fresh scrapes or dents on the car, mailbox or garage?
• Does the person become increasingly agitated or irritated when driving?
• How many near misses or accidents have there been?
• Does the person confuse the gas and brake pedals?
Go to thehartford.com/alzheimers for readable, comprehensive information. Remember, as hard as it is, regularity and seriousness of unsafe driving incidents are red flags and several small incidents or a major incident may signal the time has come to take action and get the person off the road.
Have alternate transportation options in place for the senior, if possible, so any weekly routines, while still significantly changed, won’t be completely curtailed. While many seniors recognize problems that they may have with driving and make the decision themselves to limit their time behind the road, such as curtailing night driving, those with dementia may be unable to recognize the changes and consequently are unable to respond to their decreased skill level.
As with everything in life, driving ability is very individualized but as we age our skill level does tend to deteriorate and while some people drive into their 90s others may be unable to stay behind the wheel.
More information can be found at aarp.org on how to talk with a loved one about their driving.
Carol Higgins Taylor is director of communications at Eastern Area Agency on Aging. For information on EAAA, call 941-2865, toll-free 800-432-7812, or go to EAAA.org.