Experience in our business has shown us that probably the only thing more difficult than persuading an elderly parent to accept home care is convincing a parent it is time to hand over the car keys. I actually had a client once, an elderly gentleman who lived alone, who had had a couple of fender benders over the last 2 years and his children were worried and had tried to get him to give up driving but he would have none of it. Each time they brought it up he became furious. Then, the daughter got a call from the police saying they had found her father sitting in his car, 2 hours from home, out of gas. He was dazed and confused and told the officer he had gotten “lost” driving to the store (5 minutes from his home). The kids had heard enough. They formulated a plan where the children got the car keys and took his car in the middle of the night. The next morning they called him and told him what they had done. He was so furious he called the police and reported them for stealing his vehicle…
Hopefully, if you are facing this situation as well, it won’t become as dramatic as this. But the point is—you should be prepared that it can be a very sensitive and potentially explosive subject. Think about it from your parent’s side. Driving might be one of the few things they have left where they feel free and independent and “in charge” of their destiny. While that might sound melodramatic, I think it’s true. Studies have shown that an elderly person’s greatest fear is “losing control”. The greatest cause of depression (at any age) is a person feeling as if they have no choice in how things go or no control over aspects of their lives. As seniors age, they increasingly lose control over decisions affecting their life, because well meaning family members feel “they know best”. So when an older person gets behind that wheel, if only for a bit, they feel free from all that. They are in charge-they have the choice to go wherever they want with no one nagging at them. And while they will probably only drive 2 blocks to the Post Office, they could, if they desired, keep on driving to unknown destinations. And that just feels great. That car gets them up and out of that house and into the world with everyone else. That car represents a whole lot more to the elderly than we may realize.
Be that as it may, however, there often comes a time when it is downright dangerous for your elderly loved one to continue to drive. And most of the time, it falls on the kids to break the news and enforce the new “law”. Over the years, I have seen a lot of different families go about this in a variety of ways. While some lucky ones sail through it, most have an uphill battle on their hands. So here is a bit of advice that might help you during this time:
- First things first. Start watching and assessing how your loved one is driving. You need to pay attention to the faintest hints of a decline in attention, reaction time, or going too slow on the highway. One of the main things I see in general in older clients when they start to decline is this…syndrome, for lack of a better word, where the senior begins to seem oblivious to what is going on around them as they grip the steering wheel staring straight ahead. They no longer seem to think what they do– pulling out with out looking, driving 40 mph on the freeway, changing lanes without so much of a glance back-has consequences for others. This is what puts them and those around them in danger.
- One of the reasons a senior stops looking before he pulls out or when changing lanes is because his flexibility no longer permits him to turn his neck and shoulders like he needs to. Ask for your loved one to turn his neck and shoulders each way for you. If he cannot do it, he cannot possibly drive safely.
- Macular Degeneration, cataracts, loss of peripheral vision and other eye problems can greatly interfere with driving. Insist on an eye exam and encourage the eye doctor to voice his opinion on driving (day or night) based on the results.
- Remember that it might not have to be an all or nothing situation. AARP sponsors a Driver Safety Program that helps the elderly drivers adjust their driving to changes in their physical condition. Go to AARP’s Driver Safety page online. There’s also The Association for Driver Rehabilitation that offers referrals to specialists who teach people with disabilities, including those associated with aging, how to improve their driving. Visit The Association for Driver Rehabilitation online and click on the Membership Directory in the left hand menu.
- If it is clear your loved one should not be driving under any circumstances, many experts recommend initially staging an “Intervention” which includes the family, the personal physician, close friends, etc. In my opinion, I think you should start a bit gentler. That could potentially embarrass or anger your loved one and it might not be needed. Start with just the family and have a firm but loving talk. Expect some resistance and or bargaining. Don’t argue or debate about whether driving should continue. Firm resolution is required. Give it a couple of days to sink in and then revisit the issue. THEN if you are still getting resistance, I advise doing the Intervention. This lets your loved one know you are serious, the issue is not going away and that things are escalating.
- There is another idea you can try that actually has an excellent rate of success, especially in Missouri. It is a legal process where a family member can report a driver, believed to be unsafe, for medical and driving re-evaluation and possible license restriction, suspension or revocation. The reporter’s identity is kept confidential. In Missouri, statistics show that roughly half of all who receive the notice voluntarily surrender their license. Of the other half who see their physicians, most are deemed unfit to drive and subsequently surrender their license. Visit Medical Fitness to Drive or NHTSA or more information.
- It’s only fair to try to offer some options for your loved one about how to get around if they can no longer drive. One answer is a home care agency like Heavenly Helpers who assigns a caregiver who can take them anywhere they want to go! Family should certainly attempt to jump in and help in this area as much as possible. There is also OATS –a non profit transportation company that serves the elderly and disabled in Missouri.