Have you ever needed a car repair and found yourself at the mercy of a friend, taxi or subway? The ability to drive means freedom, and without it you have to rely on other, less convenient means of transportation.
Even temporary inconveniences like these remind us that being our own driver is a privilege, and for older adults who can no longer drive safely, losing this privilege can be difficult for them and for you. Mom or Dad may be reluctant to hand over the car keys, and you might worry about how they’ll get around in the future.
Telling your parent it’s time to stop driving can feel like grounding your teenager all over again. The primary concern is safety (for your parent and for other drivers), so don’t let fear stop you from intervening. It’s also important to know when to do so. Age alone isn’t a predictor of poor driving, and caregivers should understand what factors to look for:
1. Altered Driving Behavior
Has Dad stopped driving long distances, even though he loves his annual road trip? Is he reluctant to drive at night or in bad weather? Has Mom been in an accident or had a few close calls? Do they miss important street signs and signals or seem “on edge” while driving? If yes, these behaviors can indicate that they no longer feel comfortable behind the wheel.
2. Hearing/Vision Impairment
Has Mom or Dad complained about poor vision, or do they seem hard of hearing lately? Good vision and hearing are critical for safe driving. Aside from the natural decline in eyesight that comes with aging, a number of eye conditions can also hinder an aging adult’s ability to focus and use their peripheral vision to detect pedestrians, traffic lights and other vehicles. A decline in hearing may impair your loved one’s ability to detect external cues such as sirens or a car horn.
3. Slowed Reaction Time
Safe driving requires quick thinking and the ability to multi-task. As with vision and hearing, cognitive decline also accompanies aging, and can hinder your parent’s ability to quickly react to unexpected scenarios (i.e., sudden braking or swerving to avoid a collision).
4. Medical Conditions
Discomfort from arthritis can cause older adults to restrict their movements, which could impair their ability to drive safely. Joint pain can compromise a person’s ability to fasten a seat belt, glance over the shoulder to assess traffic and even securely grip the steering.
Memory impairment – especially Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia – can also affect driving abilities. Can Mom remember where the grocery is? Does she routinely get lost or miss turns?
5. Medication Usage
While prescription medications can greatly improve the quality of life for aging adults, they can also put them at risk. Certain medications or drug interactions may have side effects that impair safe driving. If Mom or Dad’s prescription(s) have changed recently, be sure to check the labels for warnings and double-check with their doctor about possible drug interactions.
To get a firsthand look at your parent’s ability behind the wheel, offer to ride along with them the next time they run an errand. Take note of any of the behaviors mentioned above and discuss with another caregiver or family member to see if they have noticed the same behaviors.
Then, ask your Mom or Dad if they feel comfortable driving. If you have concerns, tell them specifically what you noticed, and suggest a checkup with their physician to assess their vision and hearing and any medical conditions that could impact driving safety. Regular doctors visits can help ensure that Mom or Dad is able to continue driving safely.