You have noticed that when your dad drives, he struggles to stay between the lines or stop as quickly at lights as he used to. Or maybe you are concerned about the new dents on your mother’s car. As he or she has aged, your loved one has experienced changes in their vision, physical condition, and cognitive abilities, and you are worried about their safety behind the wheel. It may be time to sit down with your elderly friend or family member and have a serious discussion about the future of their driving, but this can be a very difficult conversation. Before you launch into it, it is important to prepare. The first step is to have a good understanding of why your loved one is having difficulties driving.
What happens to drivers as they age?
During aging, the systems of the body begin to break down at the cellular level. Functions we used to give no thought to can become difficult or painful. Vision deteriorates, making it harder for drivers to read signs or see other vehicles and hazards on the road. Stiff joints can make steering, operating pedals, or even turning one’s head to check for approaching vehicles awkward and uncomfortable. Mental processes can slow, which leads to delayed processing time, slower reaction to hazards, and worsening hand-eye coordination. Elderly drivers may have more difficulty keeping track of multiple stimuli, such as traffic, weather, and the radio, or with remembering directions to their destination. They may also experience a variety of health issues that bring their own unique challenges to operating a motor vehicle. For concerns about specific conditions, see rehab.thenextstreet.com/diagnoses.
These changes, even apart from driving, can cause a person to feel like they are losing control of their life. They are often very aware of the fact that they can’t do things the way they could when they were younger. This can lead to feelings of fear, frustration, and denial. They may see driving as one of the things they can do to maintain an independent lifestyle, and excuse away problems as insignificant or as one-time incidents because they do not want to admit that they are approaching a season in life where they will no longer be able to function without assistance.
The Danger for Older Drivers
The problem is that if nothing changes, seniors are at an increased risk for serious injury and even death in a motor vehicle accident. Elderly drivers are more likely than any other age group, with the exception of teenagers, to get in an accident, and if they do get in an accident, it is more likely to be fatal. In fact, seniors make up about 18% of traffic deaths in a given year. Seniors are also more likely than any other age group to get in accidents during ideal driving times, such as daylight hours or low traffic times such as weekends, and are more likely to strike another vehicle. As they age, the number of crashes per mile driven increases, with those over age 75 at a greatly increased likelihood of being in a fatal car accident.
Time for Intervention
Knowing the risks that our elderly loved one’s face behind the wheel, it would be irresponsible for us to simply let them go on their way. At the same time, it should not be our goal in talking with older drivers to simply get them off the road. There are many alternatives to giving up driving that can help keep your loved ones safe behind the wheel. They may be able to improve their strength and range of motion with exercise and physical therapy. Better mirrors, cameras, and backup sensors can decrease the risk of accidents while in reverse. Restricting their driving to certain times, places, and weather conditions can also improve their safety while giving them a measure of independence.
Yet for all this to take place, a conversation needs to happen. In a survey conducted by the Princeton Survey Research Center, only about a quarter of seniors stated that they felt that they should be the only ones involved in making a decision about their ability to drive. The vast majority felt that when the time came, input from loved ones, physicians, or even the DMV would be needed to make the best decision.
Preparing to talk to your loved ones
Now that you have a better understanding of the situation your loved one faces, it is time to get ready to have “the talk” with them.
Go for a ride and gather some facts
Before you begin your conversation, it is very helpful to be familiar your loved one’s driving challenges so you can bring them up to make your point. Start writing down a list of known problems. It can be helpful to ride with them a few times, when they are running errands for example, and make quiet observations that you can write down later. Do this casually, without drawing attention to the fact that you are monitoring them, or they may become resentful and defensive, which can make future conversations more difficult.
Have the right attitude
Be respectful. Keep in mind that someday, you will likely be in the same position as them and think about how you want your loved ones to approach you when the time comes. Your goal is to help them, and you are doing this out of love, so avoid being confrontational. Keep a calm tone of voice, even if they get upset. Let your conversation be in an atmosphere where they can vent their emotions without harsh feedback.
See it from their perspective
Your loved one is entering the last seasons of their life. Their strength, health, and independence are starting to fade. They are coming to terms with all that this means for them, and it is very difficult. They have been used to doing things their own way for decades, and the prospect of having to ask permission to go somewhere seems like a major step backward in life. They want to know that your concern is for them and you are putting their needs first, not simply getting them out of your way. Many older people are concerned that they will be a burden to others, so there is a measure of guilt that comes with losing their independence. They need reassuring that you don’t find them bothersome, and that you want them to be as independent as is safely possible.
Choose the right person
Have someone they respect bring up the subject. If there is a certain relative that they tend to have conflict with, that may not be the most effective person to talk with them, even if they are closer geographically or hold power of attorney for them. Choose someone they will feel relaxed around and whose advice they will trust.
Choose the right time and place
If your loved one is already dealing with major difficulties in life, such as the death of a spouse or personal health struggles, it may make the conversation harder. If possible, choose a time where they are less stressed and more open to conversation on difficult subjects. Pick a location where they will feel comfortable and free to express their thoughts openly. Most of the time, this is best as a one-on-one conversation. If you gather many other friends and family around for this talk, they may feel embarrassed and angry and be more likely to resist your efforts.
Time for “the talk”
Now you’re ready to have a conversation with them about this challenging topic. You know your loved one best and should listen to your own intuition as you approach this, but in general, there are several things you can do to make the conversation easier.
Acknowledge the difficulty of the subject
As you begin, let them know that you want to talk about a difficult subject, tell them specifically that you want to talk about their driving, and let them know that you understand it is very hard for them personally to think about this.
Take the time to listen
Reassure them that you want to make this decision with them, not for them. Ask them to share their thoughts and feelings, then take the time to listen. Don’t try to rush the conversation. Let them have a few minutes to silently work though their thoughts if they need it. Address any concerns they bring up, and work with them to find solutions.
Talk about the facts
Some elderly drivers may not need much convincing to see that something needs to change with their driving, but others may be more stubborn and deny that they have a problem. At this point, it can be helpful to present them with the facts. It is often more effective to focus on their individual situation than general statistics. Bring up the information you gathered earlier and point out specific incidents that concern you. Talk about the potential harm that may occur to your loved one or others should these incidents happen again in the future.
Talk to them about alternatives
Don’t make a beeline straight to taking away their keys. In many situations, a senior driver may be able to extend their time on the road with a little bit of help. They may benefit from physical therapy, special adaptive driving equipment (such as a steering wheel knob to help them grip the wheel better), or from a change in their driving routine. For example, they may still be safe to drive during daylight hours but need to stay off the road after dark or in inclement weather.
Call rehab and get them evaluated
Encourage them to be evaluated by a Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist (CDRS). They can determine what your loved one’s strengths and weaknesses are and prescribe them a unique course of action to keep them on the road as long as possible. In the event that they do determine that your loved one is no longer safe to be on the road, they will help them make a transportation plan to keep them mobile and independent. You can reassure your loved one that being evaluated does not lead to them having their license confiscated. A CDRS does not have the right to suspend a driver’s license, though they will recommend what they feel is in the patient’s best interest.
Be willing to have the conversation multiple times
Some older drivers may readily agree that something needs to change, but others may resent the conversation. If they do not agree to seek help, be prepared to bring up the topic again at a later date. As long as safety isn’t a major concern, it is ok to wait and try at another time.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
This isn’t a journey you have to take on your own. The Next Street Driver Rehab Services is here to come alongside you and share the burden of helping your loved one. We take a personalized approach to each driver and can bring our evaluation directly to them in their own home, or they can come to one of our therapy centers in several locations across the state. We strive to help them understand and develop their driving abilities, and when driving is no longer an option, to come up with the best possible alternative solutions. To learn more about our services, go to rehab.thenextstreet.com or call us at 860-483-7009.