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When Should My Aging Parent Stop Driving?

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Tips for recognizing the signs and having the conversation.

Kate, age 85, didn't drive much, but she did make weekly trips to church and to the grocery store. Her son, who lived out of state, assumed she was fine — until he got a call from an emergency room doctor telling him that Kate veered off the road and drove into a ditch. She wasn't seriously injured, but she couldn't remember how she crashed or where she was going. Her driving days were over.

Not every older adult shows such obvious driving impairment symptoms. Caroline Cicero, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California, says caregivers should watch for clues that could indicate driving impairment.

“If you notice changes in cognitive abilities, memory, way-finding, word recall or orientation to time and place, it’s definitely time to talk seriously with your loved one about driving,” she says. “However, initial and subtle changes may be hard to pin down, and older adults may not accept they are experiencing these changes.”

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) recommends taking a few trips with mom or dad to observe their driving skills. If that's not possible, look for the following warning signs:

  • Multiple vehicle crashes, near misses and/or new dents in the car
  • Two or more traffic tickets or warnings within the last two years; increases in car insurance premiums because of driving issues
  • Anxiety about driving at night
  • Health issues that might affect driving ability, such as vision and hearing problems and/or stiffness in movement
  • Complaints about the speed, sudden lane changes or actions of other drivers
  • Recommendations from a doctor to modify driving habits or quit driving entirely

A person’s health, not age, determines when it's time to stop driving. As we get older, our joints may get stiffer and our muscles weaker. Arthritis may make it harder to turn our head or the steering wheel quickly. Reflexes slow, which may hamper our ability to react quickly when a car cuts us off at an intersection. Certain medications can cause drowsiness or lightheadedness that make us unfit to drive. Dementia can cause older drivers to forget where they’re going or how to get home.

If you notice any of the above warning signs or health issues that impact your loved one’s driving ability, it’s time to have “the talk.” NIH gives the following tips:

  • Avoid confrontation. Frame the issue as, “I am concerned about your safety,” rather than “You shouldn't drive anymore.”
  • Be positive and supportive. If your loved one becomes defensive or angry, respond with compassion. Say, “I understand how hard this is,” or, “We'll find a solution together.”
  • Follow through. Research local services that provide rides to seniors. Your local Area Agency on Aging can help. Look into carpool and shuttle services. Consider taxis and public transportation.

If your loved one only has minor issues, she may be able to modify her driving habits. If she has trouble seeing in the dark, she can avoid driving at night. She can adapt to changing reflexes and concentration by saying off freeways and driving only short distances. “All drivers need to assess themselves realistically,” says Cicero. “If they aren't able to do that, it's time for family and professionals to step in.”