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When Is It Time to Hang Up the Keys?

Free seminar helps families talk to older drivers

Harriet Warren, AARP Driver Safety

Harriet Warren, 85, of Tucson, still drives her own car. Her children worry about her driving. "We Need to Talk" helps families prepare for that conversation. — Andy DeLisle

Here's a little secret about talking with an older parent about a possible end to driving: Try some small talk.

Start with, perhaps, the hazards of driving in inclement weather. Then work up to what happens when eyes age and reflexes slow.

That approach worked for Diane Valuck, 65, of Tucson, when she and her mother, Jean Valuck, had long conversations in 2001 about hanging up the keys. They included the perilous winter driving in Michigan, where Jean lived.

Jean eventually acknowledged she could no longer handle the winter road conditions, and she didn't fancy the cost of keeping a car in good repair.

At 85, Jean made her decision. She sold her Pontiac and for the last decade of her life used the transportation offered by her assisted living center for shopping and medical appointments.

The elements in the Valucks' example come right off the pages of an AARP seminar, "We Need to Talk."

When is it time to talk?
The free seminar, also available online as a 90-minute webinar, helps family members recognize when to initiate "the talk" and illustrates how to work toward the decision after warning signs appear.

Those signs can include getting lost in familiar territory, running over curbs, paint smears on the fender or dents in the mailbox post by the driveway.

"We're not telling anybody to stop driving," said Hal Parrott, 79, of Scottsdale, a seminar leader. "If there's a problem, we just want you to know how to proceed."

Some of the tips seem aimed directly at families like that of Harriet Warren, 85, of Tucson.

Warren says she still drives quite well. But her children, who live in various parts of the country, worry.

The seminar urges people like Warren's children to gather plenty of solid information before jumping to a conclusion that a parent should no longer drive.

Next page: What about alternatives to driving? »

It spells out methods of observing driving skills over time, with an eye to assessing whether a parent can make adjustments to decreasing mobility and other common results of aging. It emphasizes taking note of changes in driving behavior, such as running yellow lights.

"It's the subtle clues that count, and a real friend will notice them," said Mindy Fain, M.D., codirector of the Arizona Center on Aging at the University of Arizona. "The little things can make people no longer want to be with you as the driver. So ask a loved one. That's a good test."

Alternatives to a car
The seminar encourages people to think about alternatives to driving. For instance, it points out how taking taxis for errands throughout the year may turn out to be a far cheaper alternative to maintaining a car.

To help a parent see a bus ride as a normal event, adult children are urged to ride the bus with the parent several times before the parent needs to make a solo bus trip.

For all drivers, AARP Arizona offers two related sessions:

The AARP Driver Safety class covers new laws and techniques that can help counteract the physical consequences associated with aging. Enter a ZIP code at the AARP Driver Safety classroom course locator find a class.

In Arizona, auto insurers aren't required to offer a premium discount for taking the class. Some do, but only for customers who take the in-person class, not the online version. The four-hour class costs $12 for AARP members and $14 for nonmembers. The Driver Safety online course is $15.95 for AARP members; $19.95 for nonmembers.

CarFit is designed to adjust vehicles to fit drivers' bodies and accommodate physical limitations that often come with age. Participants drive their own automobiles to a CarFit session for a free, 20-minute one-on-one assessment.

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