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When is Too Old to Drive?

What to Do When Your Loved One Should Stop Driving

by Courtney Caldwell

Americans are living longer than ever before thanks to healthier lifestyles, increased exercise, greater awareness about nutrition, and more advanced medications to either control or delay the onset of typical old age maladies. If seniors can be found jogging or playing tennis today, then when do they become too old to get behind the wheel of an automobile?

Seniors Want to Maintain Freedom

My parents drove well into their 80s and until then were in good physical and mental health. Then, my father began having seizures, which later turned out to be the result of advanced lung cancer. He wisely removed himself from the road. Once a very active man (he worked until he was 85), he became a housebound senior who slept, ate, watched TV and waited for the cancer to take his life. Without his mobility, he was bored and actually looked forward to going to chemotherapy just to get out of the house.

My mother, on the other hand, insisted her driving skills were as sharp as ever. However, after a few life-threatening trips to the grocery store as her passenger, I knew she had to stop driving. She was driving dangerously close to the curb, weaving in and out of her lane, reaction time was slow, and she was missing stop signs and traffic lights. Her driving was so bad that I actually insisted that my adult daughter not ride with her anymore. Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. We discovered that one of the first signs of the disease was the inability to stay inbetween the lines on the road... lots of swerving in and out, not unlike a drunk driver and just as dangerous.

This is not to say everyone in their 80s should have their license taken away. There are plenty of 50 and 60-year-olds who shouldn't be on the road either, which leads to my point: it's not really a matter of age, but rather mental and physical ability.

Aging, no matter how healthy you are, slows down our physical and neurological mobility. Simple everyday tasks, once easy to perform, become more daunting. Slowly, our independence is robbed as aging gives way, leaving driving as one of the last frontiers of freedom we have. This makes it hard to tell a parent or loved one that they shouldn't drive anymore because their ability is impaired and they're a danger to themselves and others. If they don't recognize it themselves they'll not only be hurt by the accusation but insulted as well. Expect them to put up a fight.

Here are a few tips to consider on how to make an evaluation on a parent's driving ability before you approach them.

If you begin to notice a change in a parent's driving ability such as driving slower, poor reaction time to lights and signs, more timid about faster drivers, reluctant to drive on the freeway, driving erratically, then the first thing you want to do is ask in a subtle way how he or she has been feeling lately.

Listen for any unusual complaints like more tired than usual, not seeing as well, lethargic, hearing seems impaired, forgetful behavior, etc. Pay attention to his or her habits around the house. Is anything out of the norm or showing changes in managing everyday tasks? Could it be a case of overmedication? When was the last time he or she had a check-up? Perhaps you should go on the next appointment to ask questions. Quite often, our parents won't admit to physical ailments so we have to take charge.

The first thing you should do is rule out any medical causes for the change in driving habits. If it's not a medical problem then very likely it is just the wrath of old age slowing down the senses. For some it's simply their sight, for others it could be hearing, or just a slowing reaction time, most of which have reasonable solutions.

Offer to go on little trips to the store or barber shop, the cleaners or movies with them. Observe for yourself their driving skills to note if anything is different. Is either parent driving in a manner that could cause an accident or put them in harms way?

If you notice a difference in driving ability, you should then call a family meeting to discuss your findings. This may be more difficult for some since your family may be spread out across the country. However, you could do a conference call or an online discussion.

Siblings who live near the parents should do their own evaluation and then regroup to compare findings. If you find that one of your parents is just too dangerous on the road, you need to develop a plan on how to address the situation. Every family is different so what may work for one, may not work for another. You need to develop your own plan on what works best for your situation.

The most important thing to remember is to be as gentle and caring as possible. Be prepared to offer your observations without sounding accusatory. Remember, you're taking away their freedom so it won't be easy. Expect them to be angry and rebellious but don't hold it against them. Put yourself in their shoes. Let them know you're doing this because you love them, want them to be safe and are prepared to help them in any way you can.

You must have a plan in place for who will handle all their errands, doctor appointments, and visits to their friends. It can become extremely time-intensive to become a chauffeur every day amidst your own busy lifestyle. However, someone has to become the designated schedule organizer where all siblings, grandchildren, other relatives and friends, can work as a team to take turns with grocery shopping and doctor visits. Perhaps even incorporate some of their errands into your own schedule so you don't have to do those errands twice.

Taking away a parent's driving privileges is a difficult thing to do so keep in mind that you may not succeed. The last thing any aging parent wants to do in their golden years is depend on you or anyone else for help, especially if he or she has always been independent. So before you share your concerns with your parents, have a plan in place that will be easy and simple to follow, one that won't interfere with their normal routine too much.

With my parents, it was a family endeavor. Siblings, adult grandchildren, sisters and brothers all pitched in. Some did errands, some cooked meals or brought meals to them, others helped manage their bills and payments so nothing lapsed, and some simply visited since they were housebound most of the time. Some of the younger grandchildren might even show them how to use email and Skype to stay connected.

Be sure to contact family and friends to encourage consistent visits to help prevent your parents from getting lonely or depressed, a leading cause of suicide among the elderly. Arrange times for them to get out and visit others as well, perhaps every Saturday or Sunday for a few hours. Keep in mind, as parents get old, many of their friends have passed on, so finding other ways to keep them engaged mentally and physically can be daunting.

There are many very active senior centers and organizations in every community that offer activities, age-appropriate events and games, as well as shuttle services to and from activities and doctor appointments. Some call this adult day care. Google 'senior community centers' in the town in which they live to find out what services are offered. Keeping your parents as mobile as possible is not only the healthiest choice for them, it's also healthy for your peace of mind.

I recently learned of a national organization called Visiting Angels, that offers in-home care such as meals, housekeeping, health and/or hygiene care, and errands. They offer very flexible schedules, as well, which could easily accommodate your busy work and family schedule, and lightening your load.

It's our responsibility to ensure that safe driving habits are practiced not only by our children, but by our aging parents as well. Take good care of them, and treat them with the same dignity and respect that you would want for yourself when you're their age. It's never as far away as we think.