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Best Car Features for Caregivers

When you're a chauffeur for older adults, children or people with disabilities, what you drive matters

Multi-generation family in the car, smiling

Find the right car for you and your loved ones — Amana Images/Getty Images

En español |Caring for someone else can mean a lot of stress — and a lot of time in the car. Driving to doctors' appointments, tests, the pharmacy and even just trips around town can take on another level of complexity when you're responsible for someone else's needs.

But if you have a car that supports your caregiving efforts, life will be that much easier. Here's what caregivers need to look for when shopping for a car.

Access for people

If you or someone you're caring for has limited mobility, ease of entry and exit is a big deal in a car. Life will be easier for people caring for children if little ones can get into the car by themselves or, at the very least, if you don't have to contort yourself to buckle them into car seats.

Avoid low-slung sports cars and mile-high trucks and SUVs. Instead, minivans, crossovers and sedans offer good ease of access.

Minivans, such as the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey, don't require a huge step up to get into the vehicle, and their seats are at hip level for many adults, which means they're easy to lower yourself into and get out of. Most minivans also offer doors that can be opened and closed remotely.

Crossovers ride higher than cars do, but not as high as some SUVs, so getting in may be easier. Look for doors that can swing wide and provide plenty of interior room for everyone to get situated. The Toyota RAV4 and Hyundai Tucson are two that have easy-access height and doors.

Access for stuff

Caring for someone else often means traveling with a lot of stuff. Make things easy on yourself by getting a car that can handle extra cargo and makes loading and unloading easy. Most crossovers and minivans offer remote-opening rear hatches. For example, on the GMC Terrain, you can hit a button on the key fob and the cargo area will open. That's a big help if you're fumbling with children and bags in a busy parking lot.

Also consider how high the cargo load floor is, particularly if the person you're caring for has heavy equipment. With some crossovers, you have to lift very high (above your hips or waist) to get items into the cargo area. A heavy wheelchair can take a real toll on your back. Before buying a car, take the gear you usually carry with you to the dealership and see how easy it is to load and unload.

Desirable technology features

One way a car can make caregiving easier is by having the right interior technology. Depending on your needs, the technology can be as simple as a radio so you can play soothing music for an agitated passenger. Or the technology can be a communications service that will connect you to emergency workers if needed.

A navigation system can be a big help to any caregiver, particularly if you travel out of town a lot. Most navigation systems can quickly find and direct you to the nearest hospital or pharmacy; some can even help find doctors' offices. (They can also locate restaurants and movie theaters, for when you need a break!) Although they are coming down in price, navigation systems on new cars can still be expensive. You could use a navigation app on your smartphone instead — Google Maps, for example — or try a portable GPS unit, which can be purchased at an electronics store.

If you frequently make calls while on the road, a hands-free Bluetooth phone system can help limit distraction. Systems like the one that is standard in the Kia Sportage let you make and answer calls with voice commands so you can keep your eyes on the road and hands on the steering wheel. Having phone access from your car can be a big help when scheduling appointments or waiting for test results.

You might also consider in-car telematics, which are systems that monitor the car's condition and position. A touch of a button and you're connected with roadside assistance or emergency services. These systems, which are available on some models of General Motors, Toyota, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and other vehicles, also feature automatic crash response technology that detects a crash and sends help, even if you're incapacitated.

Finally, don't forget about having some fun, too. A rear-seat DVD system can keep children and adults happy.

Fuel friendliness

Taking care of someone else can take a healthy chunk out of your budget. Make sure your car's appetite for fuel doesn't do the same thing. Not only are crossovers usually easier to get in and out of, but they also tend to have better fuel economy than SUVs. The Buick Encore, Chevrolet Trax, Mazda CX-5 and Honda CR-V have great fuel economy for crossovers. The Honda Odyssey gets 19/28 mpg city/highway, which is among the best for minivans.

Special features, just for you

Carmakers are focusing on more products that make sense for an aging population, but in some cases the car you buy off the lot won't be able to handle everything you need it to. If that's the case, you'll need to consider how a vehicle can be customized to your needs.

For instance, a ramp is going to be easier to install on some types of cars than others. Resources, including the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association, can help you find the right car for the modifications you want — and a reputable dealer to install the features that fit your needs.

Jamie Page Deaton is the managing editor of the U.S. News Best Cars rankings. A version of this article originally appeared on the AARP Driver Safety Program blog "The Road Well Traveled."

Originally published October 2011

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