When Driving Becomes a Danger for an Older Parent

safe_drivingDriving is one way that many of us gauge our sense of independence. When we get behind the wheel, we have the freedom to go wherever we want to go. However, what happens when it’s no longer safe for an older individual to drive?

Confronting the Question: When Should Your Parent Stop Driving?

For many adult children, having a discussion with their parents about this issue can cause intense familial conflict. An effective way to handle the situation is to call in an independent third party that can objectively and dispassionately help assess your parent’s fitness to continue driving. That’s the role of Keeping Us Safe LLC, an organization that provides practical solutions for older drivers and their families.

Keeping Us Safe offers a self-assessment program, called “Beyond Driving With Dignity,” which is designed to help older drivers concerned about their driving future.

“It essentially removes the family from the immediate line of fire, so to speak,” says Matt Gurwell, founder and CEO of Keeping Us Safe. “As an independent third party, we play no favorites and have no agenda other than safety. That’s often how an adult child will present it. They’ll say, ‘Mom, you think your driving is great. However, we think it’s in question and worry that something might happen. So, let’s have this independent party come in, and whatever they say, we’ll agree in advance to abide by.’ Often times, that works out well.”

Keeping Us Safe’s self-assessment program involves a certified “Beyond Driving With Dignity” professional coming into the home for a three-hour session. Much of the program focuses on cognitive screenings involving pen-and-paper type exercises, and if it is safe to do so, a driving component is included.

“Two-thirds of the older drivers we meet with actually do end up retiring from driving as a result of this session,” Gurwell says. “Throughout the process, we place a great deal of emphasis on helping older drivers maintain their dignity and independence. We empower them to be the decision-maker. When we’ve concluded the session, they make the decision based on the information we provide them, and because of that, they take 100-percent ownership of it.”

For families who can handle the issue without the self-assessment session, Keeping Us Safe also offers the “Beyond Driving with Dignity” workbook. “It’s an excellent resource that walks them through the whole process,” Gurwell explains. “So, essentially there are two ways you can go. The self-assessment is for those families who wouldn’t dream about talking to Mom or Dad about this issue or they’ve tried talking to them before without success. The workbook is for those families who can essentially say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this. We just need a little help and support along the way.’ ”

Reasons to Retire from Driving

Reasons for an older individual to retire from driving fall into two general categories: (1) physical impairments and (2) cognitive impairments. “When it comes to physical issues, there’s not too much that can be done,” Gurwell says. “Sometimes occupational or physical therapy may bring a driver back into a window of safe driving compliance, but often times when we’re dealing with issues like reflexes, reaction times, strength, flexibility and vision, those are only going to be correctable to a certain degree.”

Cognitive impairments can be a major impediment to safe driving, but many older adults don’t recognize how detrimental declining cognitive skills can be. In particular, Gurwell reports that difficulties with memory can cause the older driver to get lost, confused and distracted—in some cases with tragic results.

“Our program focuses in a huge way on this whole issue of memory because often times it get overlooked, and there are some real-life examples of how memory can actually lead to an older driver’s demise,” Gurwell says. “Just this summer, there was a story of a 93-year-old Tuskegee Airman who was robbed and carjacked on the same day in St. Louis after getting lost on his way to his daughter’s house. Another case was reported in The Washington Post a few winters ago with the headline: ‘Elderly couple found frozen to death after getting lost on drive.’ ”

Signs of Driving Impairment

There are various signs that can indicate whether an older driver should retire from driving. They include:

  • Getting lost, especially when driving to a familiar place
  • Experiencing falls or lose of balance
  • Being cited for one or more traffic violations
  • Involvement in one or more accidents, even minor in nature

“Any one of these things may not be indicative of someone who needs to give up driving, but two or more of them together can paint a very real picture about the parent’s driving ability,” Gurwell says. “There have also been studies that show that family members and professional caregivers are very accurate in predicting diminished driving skills in a loved one or someone they care for. When an adult child is worried about Mom or Dad’s driving, their concerns are typically found to be legitimate.”

Additionally, adult children may wish to assess their parents’ driving either directly or indirectly. “For instance, have Mom drive to the store and ride alongside her to see what you think,” Gurwell suggests.

When adult children live out of state, having neighbors or friends observe their elderly parent can be helpful. “We get those types of calls quite often,” Gurwell says. “An adult child will say, ‘I had a friend call me. She was following my mom on her way home and said her driving was very poor.’ So, definitely listen to what others are saying.”

It’s important to note that not all drivers will need to retire from driving once they reach a certain age. In fact there are millions of individuals who drive safely at 80, 85 and beyond.

“The decision needs to be based on skills, not age,” Gurwell says. “Certainly there’s a correlation between age and diminished driving skills, but you can’t base the decision on age alone.”

Maintaining Independence

Once the decision has been made for the older parent to retire from driving, it’s important to come up with alternative means of transportation. “The success of this whole driving retirement issue revolves around the family’s ability to develop a Plan B,” Gurwell says. “You need to sit down as a family and say, ‘Mom and Dad, it’s time to retire from driving, but we kids have it figured out and we’re going to get you to every single place that you enjoy going.’”

Family and friends are typically the best resource for providing transportation. Gurwell also recommends that families check out local resources such as their Area Agency on Aging, transportation services for older adults, veterans’ organizations, faith-based organizations, public transportation services, taxi services, and other options.

“The list goes on and on,” Gurwell says. “You just have to be creative. It’s a shame that we have a default mindset that if a person doesn’t drive they lose their independence. It doesn’t have to be that way. Retirement from driving may be a loss of convenience, but it should not be a loss of independence.”

Read more on this topic: Seniors Driving in Large Numbers

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One comment on “When Driving Becomes a Danger for an Older Parent
  1. Kaye Swain says:

    Great article. And so frustrating to implement when you live nearby. Even harder when your loved one lives far away. It definitely takes a lot of prayer, a lot of caring, and a lot of gentleness. Thanks for sharing this. 🙂

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