How to talk with an aging parent about driving

Older parents and adult children often view driving from different perspectives. From the older person’s point of view, driving is likely to be more than a practical issue.

by Cynthia J. Fagyas — 

Americans of all ages love their cars. Cars give us mobility and freedom, as well as a sense of safety, privacy, convenience and comfort. In many communities, a car is essential because there are few or no alternative forms of transportation. However, physical changes associated with aging, such as reduction in vision and slowed response times, can affect a person’s ability to drive safely. Safe driving is a major transportation issue faced by many older Americans.

Older parents and adult children often view driving from different perspectives. From the older person’s point of view, driving is likely to be more than a practical issue. It is often linked to feelings of competence, independence and being a part of society. As their parents age, adult children often wonder whether and when their parents should stop driving, but many of these older parents resent having their driving ability questioned and are unable or unwilling to admit there is a problem.

If you are facing this issue, you can help your parent continue to drive safely, assess their abilities or find alternative sources of transportation, if necessary. Here are steps you may consider:

  • Review and adjust your own attitudes about older drivers. Do stereotypes about aging affect your feelings about older people as individuals with different strengths, or do you lump them together as a group? Will this change as you grow older?
  • Try to get an objective assessment of your parent’s driving abilities. Recent accidents or traffic tickets could signal a problem. Drive with them, or ask someone else to observe.
  • Determine if your parent is voluntarily limiting his or her driving. Many older people drive only during daylight and to places they know well. Is your parent limiting his or her driving after dark or during heavy traffic? If so, you may want to offer to drive them or help them make other arrangements.
  • Check your parent’s car. Can he or she see over the dashboard and do their feet reach the pedals easily? Are the steering wheel, mirrors and seats properly adjusted? Is the car in good repair?
  • Help your parent assess his or her current driving skills. Consult with local colleges or universities, occupational therapists, doctors or the AAA for assistance. Address any problems uncovered.

Driver refresher courses or behind-the-wheel education courses are options. To help drivers refresh their skills, AARP offers a classroom course and an online safety course that teach safe driving strategies and address age-related changes that can affect one’s driving ability. www.aarp.org/drive or 1-888-227-7669.

Involve others if you need support working through this potentially difficult issue. If your parent refuses to make changes or stop driving, a doctor, clergy member or friend may be able to help. As a last resort, you can contact your local Department of Motor Vehicles and report your awareness of their unsafe driving.

If you have determined it is time for either of your parents to stop driving, help them find other means of transportation. Work with them to identify the transportation services available in their area. These could include public buses, taxis, private drivers for hire, senior transportation services and volunteer driver services.

Remember to include your parent as an active participant in all discussions and decisions about their driving. They should feel they are still in control and that you respect their ability to direct their own life. The motivation for change must come from them — for their safety, the safety of others and your peace of mind.

 

Cynthia J. Fagyas is with AARP Arizona, in Phoenix. 866-389-5649, 602-262-5165 or www.aarp.org.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 26, Number 3, June/July 2007.

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