Some drivers over 50 have never looked back since they first got their licenses. They sport around town, many with the same level of driving skills that they possessed when they first hit the road. But age-related changes—reaction times, medical conditions affecting the heart, eyes, muscles, and brain, and the medicines used to treat those symptoms—can affect fitness to drive.
Many caregivers worry about the ability of their loved ones to continue driving safely. We worry about the harm they might cause to themselves and to others. So how can we assist caregivers to identify the time to stop or to limit driving?
- Watch for warning signs of diminishing abilities or unsafe driving.
- Use guidance and resources on AARP.org to conduct important "family conversations" about driving.
- Help by showing your loved ones the resources they can use to refresh their driving skills. Make sure they are aware of the current rules of the road and new car technologies.
We all want to continue driving as long as we can safely do so. We love the independence that driving represents, and we are frightened by what an end to driving could mean to our quality of life. So when family members' age-related changes begin to affect driving skills, it can be difficult to talk to them about their driving fitness.
Assess the Situation
If you are concerned that your older family member's driving skills may be diminishing, the first thing you should do is spend some time with the person in the car. Observe firsthand how he or she drives, makes decisions, and deals with different road conditions. While you're riding with your loved one, pay attention to how he or she handles being in the driver's seat.
Here are some warning signs that may indicate a problem. Does your loved one appear to be any of the following?
- Uncomfortable, nervous, or fearful
- Having difficulty staying in the travel lane
- Misjudging gaps in traffic at intersections and on highway entrance and exit ramps
- Not seeing the sides of the road when looking straight ahead
- Having a hard time turning around to check over the shoulder while backing up or changing lanes
- Getting honked at by other drivers
- Having trouble paying attention to traffic signals, road signs, and pavement markings
Once you've spent some time on the road and have seen some of the warning signs, take a look at your loved one's car. Talk to him or her or with other family members and friends about what's happening, and ask yourself the following:
- Can you find dents and scrapes on the car, on fences, mailboxes, garage doors, and curbs?
- Have friends and family said that they don't want to drive with Mom or Dad?
- Is your loved one living with a medical condition or taking medications that could affect the ability to handle a car safely?
- How many traffic tickets or warnings from law enforcement officers has your loved one received in the last year or two?
- Does your loved one get lost repeatedly?
The "Family Conversation"
You might not know that in general, older drivers monitor themselves. Most gradually limit or stop driving when they feel that it is no longer safe. Ask yourself how many people you know who:
- Have stopped driving at night
- Don't use the interstate highway
- Only drive to familiar places
- Avoid driving during rush hour
- Don't drive in inclement weather
- Make three right turns in order to go left
These steps are good, because they show the drivers are aware of their abilities and are changing their behavior to stay safe on the road!
However, some people do not recognize declining abilities. Some do, but fear that driving less or not at all will make mean they are stuck at home and unable to get where they need and want to go.
If you, as a caregiver, reach the conclusion that you need to talk with a loved one about safe driving, there are several steps you should take, including the following:
Share. Tell your loved one what you have observed and that you are concerned about his or her safety. Expect this first conversation to be one of many. It's important that you are as constructive and supportive as possible. If you have siblings, you should talk together about how best to share your collective concerns, but you should not "gang up" on your mom or dad, because that approach won't be well received.
Go with your loved one to talk to the doctor. See if there are any changes he or she can make to the driver's medications to improve your loved one's driving abilities. After a physical examination, the doctor may recommend an occupational therapist to help your loved one build strength and flexibility.
Consider an AARP Driver Safety course. AARP has offered its Driver Safety Program for 30 years. More than 12 million people have completed the courses. Taking the no-test course is an excellent way to learn compensation techniques to address age-related changes, and how the rules of the road and car technologies have changed since your loved one started driving. He or she might even be eligible for an insurance discount after completing the course, which is offered in both in-person and online settings.
Look for a Carfit program. This no-cost program, supported by the American Automobile Association, the American Occupational Therapists Association, and AARP, conducts one-on-one consultations with drivers to evaluate how they "fit" their cars. Carfit consultants look at the height of the driver's seat, the positioning of the mirrors, and whether or not the driver reaches the pedals. They may suggest physical therapy to build strength and flexibility, or they may direct your loved one to adaptive devices that can make driving easier.
Working to Keep Your Loved One Safe
All parents surely remember watching their child drive off alone for the first time. You reassure yourself that you have done everything possible to make sure they are conscious of safety. You've shared your knowledge of driving, had the conversation about drinking and distracted driving, but at the end of the day, you have to trust that your child will use what he or she has learned to stay safe.
No adult child wants to worry about an older parent behind the wheel. But many do. We all understand how important it is for older Americans to remain independent, mobile, and socially connected. So it is critical that all caregivers approach the topic of driving as respectfully as possible. The good news is that if you identify a problem, the resources and steps I've reviewed can improve your loved one's fitness to drive.
If, however, the time comes when everyone agrees it is time to hang up the keys, many communities have transportation options to get your loved one to the places he or she needs and wants to go. Make sure you've done your homework and can introduce your loved one to all of the community transportation resources that are available.
Caregiving is all about helping your loved ones lead the best possible life. Staying safe on the road is just another important part of that picture. I wish you good luck helping the people you care for get around safely.
All the best,
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