How to help elderly drivers limit or stop driving

The Savy Senior

Jim Miller - Savy SeniorMarch 14, 2012 

Dear Savvy Senior,

I'm worried about my father's driving. At age 84, his driving skills have diminished significantly, but I know he's bound and determined to keep going as long as he's alive. What tips can you recommend that can help me help my dad stop driving?

-- Nervous daughter


Dear Nervous,

For many families, telling an elderly parent it's time to give up the car keys is a very sensitive and difficult topic. While there's no one simple way to handle this issue, here are a number of tips and resources you can try to help ease your dad away from driving.

Take a ride: To get a clear picture of your dad's driving abilities, the first thing you need to do is take a ride with him watching for problem areas. For example: Does he drive too slow or too fast? Does he tailgate or drift between lanes? Does he have difficulty seeing, backing up or changing lanes? Does he react slowly? Does he get distracted or confused easily? Also, has your dad had any fender benders or tickets lately, or have you noticed any dents or scrapes on his vehicle? These, too, are red flags.

Start talking: After your assessment, you need to have a talk with your dad about your concerns, but don't sound alarmed. If you begin with a dramatic outburst like "Dad, you're going to kill someone" you're likely to trigger resistance. Start by gently expressing that you're worried about his safety.

For tips on how to talk to your dad about this touchy topic, the Hartford Financial Services Group and MIT AgeLab offers some guides titled "Family Conversations with Older Drivers" and "Family Conversations about Alzheimer's Disease, Dementia & Driving" that can help, along with a online seminar called "We Need to Talk" that was produced by AARP. To access these free resources, visit safedrivingforalifetime.com.

Like many elderly seniors, your dad may not even realize his driving skills have slipped. If this is the case, consider signing him up for an older driver refresher course through AARP aarp.org/drive, 888-227-7669), your local AAA or a driving school.

By becoming aware of his driving limitations, your dad may be able to make some simple adjustments -- like driving only in daylight or on familiar routes -- that can help keep him safe and driving longer. Or, he may decide to hang up the keys on his own.

Refuses to quit: If, however, you believe your dad has reached the point that he can no longer drive safely, but he refuses to quit, you have several options. One possible solution is to suggest a visit to his doctor who can give him a medical evaluation, and if warranted, "prescribe" that he stops driving. Older people will often listen to their doctor before they will listen to their own family.

If that doesn't do it, ask him to get a comprehensive driving evaluation done by a driver rehabilitation specialist. This can cost several hundred dollars. A driving evaluation will test your dad's cognition, vision and motor skills, as well as his on-road driving abilities. To locate a specialist in your area, contact the Association of Driver Rehabilitation Specialists driver-ed.org, 866-672-9466) or the American Occupational Therapy Association aota.org/older-driver).

If he still refuses to move to the passenger seat, call the Department of Motor Vehicles to see if they can help. Or, call in an attorney to discuss with your dad the potential financial and legal consequences of a crash or injury. If all else fails, you may just have to take away his keys.

Arrange transportation: Once your dad stops driving he's going to need other ways to get around, so help him create a list of names and phone numbers of family, friends and local transportation services that he can call on.

~~~-- Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.

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