An adult daughter is out running errands with her elderly mother, who is driving. They near the entrance to their neighborhood, but her mother drives past, unaware that she missed the turn. When they arrive at home, the daughter notices a few scratches on the car, but her mother hasn’t mentioned any accidents. Then one day the daughter receives a call that her mother rear-ended a car at an intersection when she didn’t brake soon enough. Thankfully, nobody was injured, but the daughter knows it could have been much worse. All the red flags have her asking herself if it’s safe for her mother to be driving at all. How do you know when it is time to give up the keys? How do you talk to an elderly loved one about your concerns? What if they refuse to listen?
Driving is important to many seniors because it is one way to maintain independence in a time where they are otherwise losing it. Many seniors continue to drive safely in their old age due to their years of experience. However, driving is a complicated task that requires many things including excellent sight and hearing abilities, quick reactions, paying close attention to surroundings, judging distances, and monitoring speed. As seniors age, they may experience a decline in physical and cognitive abilities that ultimately hinders their driving. Elderly drivers may find it difficult to make turns into traffic, change lanes, or navigate busy intersections.
The number of senior drivers on the road is steadily increasing – in 2011, there were 35 million licensed senior drivers, a 21 percent increase from 2002, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. When involved in crashes, seniors can be hurt more easily than younger drivers. Seventeen percent of all traffic fatalities and nine percent of injuries in traffic crashes were those over 65 years old. Accidents involving elder drivers frequently happen at intersections or in merging situations.
There are many different warning signs for seniors’ driving difficulties. You may notice that your elderly loved one has trouble turning their head to look over their shoulder, or that they can’t see as well in the dark. The following are other red flags to watch for:
- Getting lost easily and missing turns or exits that are second nature
- Driving too slow or too fast
- Sudden lane changes
- Drifting into other lanes
- Braking or accelerating suddenly without reason
- Failing to use turn signal or keeping signal on without changing lanes
- Frequent close calls with accidents
- Dents and scrapes on car or on fences, mailbox, garage door, etc.
- Increased warnings or citations from traffic and law enforcement officers
- Getting frustrated or anxious easily while driving
If a senior starts to exhibit some of the above behaviors, it is important to take action. Make sure they are getting their eyes and ears checked regularly, and getting consistently good sleep. A doctor or therapist will be able to recommend any aids that will help senior drivers, like tools to help with steering and reaching the pedals. Seniors can also take driving evaluations through a specialist or the DMV, including an exam for those with cognitive problems like dementia. Talking to an elderly driver about their expectations – how long they want to continue driving, where they need to go every week, etc. – will set up a conversation to maybe setting restrictions like no driving in bad weather, at night, or in certain areas.
If your senior loved one shows one or more of the warning sings above continually, then it may be time for them to stop driving. Many seniors may not be willing to give up so easily and will be resistant to any conversation about it. It’s important to be respectful, but not to be too intimidated to voice your concerns. Bunni Dybnis, a social worker at the geriatric care service LivHome, said an intervention from children or grandchildren is often how older drivers decide to stop driving. “I could probably say it’s 99.99 percent not the older adult saying, ‘I want to stop driving; help me,’” Dybnis said.
It’s helpful to cite specific examples of their driving troubles instead of using generalizations like, “You can’t drive safely anymore.” Having other family members or close friends to second your opinion may help convince the senior. Better yet, an impartial opinion from a doctor or specialist may be what they need to hear.
Just because an elder gives up driving does not mean he or she must become isolated. Offer to help your senior loved one find alternative forms of transportation, like setting up a carpool schedule for rides from family and friends. If a senior is new to public transportation, offer to take the first few rides with them until they get used to the change. Many senior centers, hospitals, and assisted-living facilities offer transportation for seniors to use for running errands and going to appointments.
Seniors may feel a loss of independence when they give up driving. It’s important to help them cope with the change and to understand their feelings. It may help to make a slow transition out of driving to help them adjust, like to stop driving at night. Talk about the benefits of not driving, like the money saved on gas, maintenance, and insurance, and the opportunity to get more exercise. If they still refuse to give up the keys, then it could mean you need to take action yourself and prevent access to the car. It may seem harsh, but if a senior’s driving is threatening their safety or the safety of others, then it is worth it.
“Seniors and Driving: When Is It Time to Give up the Keys?” Written by Taylor French, Amada contributor.