As Mom or Dad gets older, you may begin to worry about their driving skills. Is it still safe for them to drive? How will you know when the time comes to hang up the keys? And just how will you address this tricky subject with Mom or Dad?
As we age, our vision and hearing abilities decrease and our reaction time slows. Problems with memory, including dementia, become more common. All of this means that we may not drive as well as we used to. Seniors may not be as quick to brake when the car in front of them suddenly slows down. They may have trouble turning their neck to see behind them when backing out of a parking space. They may forget directions, or have difficulty keeping track of the speed limit, even on familiar roads.
Of course, many seniors drive happily and safely well into their golden years. There is no hard and fast age to put the keys away. There are many ways you can help your aging loved one drive as safely as possible.
Seniors and Driving: Safety Tips
Go along with Mom. Make time to join your loved one on an errand or daytrip, and let her do the driving. This is an unobtrusive way to reassure yourself that Mom is still driving safely. Pay attention to her mood, her ability to stay in the lane, and how quickly she responds to things. If you feel nervous about her driving, or if she seems unusually stressed, it’s time to have a talk.
Encourage regular eye and hearing exams. This is probably the most important thing seniors can do to continue to drive safely. The American Optometric Association recommends an annual eye exam for everyone over age 60. Glasses or contact lens prescriptions should be updated regularly. Hearing tests can be performed by your loved one’s regular physician. If hearing aids are prescribed, they absolutely must be worn while driving.
Keep the car in good shape. Get regular tune-ups, make sure tires are properly inflated, and keep the windshield clean and the wipers in good order. Your loved one may need to adjust their seat periodically as they age, especially if they lose inches due to osteoporosis. Another option is to bring a cushion to sit on. Keep an eye on the state of Dad’s car. If you notice new dents and scratches, his driving skills may be declining.
Drive during the day and on quiet streets. Nighttime driving often becomes difficult for seniors before daytime driving does. This is especially true for those with vision problems such as glaucoma. Encourage Dad to save driving for the daytime when he is most alert and it is easier to see. He may feel unsafe driving on a freeway before he feels unsafe driving on back roads. Encourage him to plan routes that take him away from heavy traffic, even if the trip takes longer. Quieter roads make it easier to concentrate and drive safely.
Watch the meds. Some medications can cause drowsiness, which is not a good thing behind the wheel. Your loved one should talk to their doctor if they suspect a medication is making them too drowsy to drive safely. Make sure to read all prescription information carefully, particularly any warnings that may be present on the packaging.
Drive more carefully. Older drivers sometimes get a bad rap for driving slowly, but there’s good reason for them to do so. Driving more slowly gives your parent extra time to react to anything from crosswalks to red lights. Seniors should also keep more distance between themselves and the car ahead. They should take turns more slowly and avoid distractions whenever possible. This means keeping the phone off, the conversation quiet, and the radio on low.
Buy a new car. New cars offer many safety features that an older car may not have. This can make it much easier for your parent to drive safely. Dad could get a car with a back-up camera to make backing out of his tight driveway easier. A car with lane-keeping assist can alert him if he drifts out of his lane. Park-assist features make it much easier to parallel park. And if Mom gets nervous driving in snow, a car with all-wheel drive can help.
Seniors and Driving: When it’s time to hang up the keys
How will you know when your loved one’s driving has become unsafe? Look for these clues.
Vision and hearing problems not corrected by lenses and hearing aids. This includes blurred vision, inability to see signs, and Dad not hearing a siren until the ambulance is practically on top of him.
Slowed reflexes. Having a few near misses is a red flag. If Mom tells you about cars or pedestrians that came “out of nowhere”, her reflexes may be declining.
Forgetfulness. This can range from forgetting to turn off the turn signal to forgetting how to drive to a friend’s house. Or Mom may back into the mailbox and claim she forgot it was there.
Stress. If Dad seems stressed when he drives, the process may just be too much for him. Look for signs of anger and irritability and ask about his reactions when the drive is done.
You’ve decided it’s time for your loved one to stop driving. How do you go about having the conversation?
Talk to your loved one about your concerns. Be as specific as possible. “Mom you nearly hit the garage door when you pulled in today and you didn’t remember to stop at the crosswalk.” Get another family member to back you up if your parent refuses to take you seriously. Another option is to ask their doctor to talk to them.
Suggest alternatives. Giving up driving can feel like giving up our independence. If Mom or Dad lives near a bus route or other public transportation, help them learn to use it. They will still be able to visit a friend or run a quick errand without being dependent on someone else. If they live close to town, is walking or biking an option? This might also be a good time to consider moving closer to town, or to an assisted living community. Either option can help your loved one keep some independence.
Ask them to go with you. Invite your loved one along when you are running errands so they can accomplish their own errands as well. Quietly let others know that Dad is no longer driving, and ask them to do the same when possible.
Trade favors. Many seniors feel badly about putting people out. Accept offers to help pay for gas or take you out to lunch. It will help them accept the situation with more grace.
Above all, remind your loved one that it is far wiser to stop driving than to put themselves and others at risk. It takes a strong person to admit that they don’t feel safe driving anymore.