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Can My 80-year-old Parents Still Drive? What to Do When Your Parents Become Elderly Drivers

Is your mom driving 15 miles per hour in the fast lane? Has your dad passed the turn to his house because he couldn’t see the street signs? Are your parents’ medications making them drowsy throughout the day?

If you answer “yes” to these questions, then it might be time to start asking another question: Should they still be driving?

In 2016, about 7,400 adults over the age of 65 were killed in car crashes — and nearly 300,000 older adults were treated for injuries caused by a car crash. This means that every day, about 20 older adults are killed in a car crash and nearly 800 are injured.

There doesn’t need to be a blanket ban on elderly drivers — many older adults drive safely, and driving helps them stay independent and on the go. But at some point, aging and driving won’t mix well.

Can Mom or Dad Physically and Mentally Handle Driving?

Your parents getting older is not a good enough reason to take them off the road — but it is a great reason to be concerned about their safety.

This is because there are several age-related concerns when it comes to driving:

  • Hearing or vision problems: As people age, their hearing and eyesight capabilities may decrease.
  • Stiff joints and weak muscles: Joint and muscle problems can make it difficult to grip the wheel, press brakes, or steer quickly when there’s an emergency.
  • Medications: About 90% of older adults take at least one prescription drug each day. These drugs can cause side effects like drowsiness or light-headedness, which can make driving unsafe.
  • Slow reflexes: Reflexes and reaction times can slow with age. Your parents may have difficulty stopping or turning in time to avoid an accident.
  • Dementia: Dementia disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, affect memory and decision-making skills — both of which are critical for safe driving.

Certain diseases that are more common as people age can also interfere with safe driving. For example, Parkinson’s disease can cause motor problems, like poor coordination or slow movements. These can make it difficult to steer or brake.

After an Accident

As parents age and their bodies become more vulnerable, their risk for injury or death from a motor vehicle crash increases.

Age-related problems like fragile bones can increase the risk of injury, and medical conditions like heart disease can make it difficult to recover from an injury.

Should I Talk to My Aging Parents About Driving?

Ask yourself: Have you made any of these 4 statements recently?

  1. My parent’s health hasn’t been the best lately.
  2. My parent has been having trouble seeing clearly.
  3. My parent has had a difficult time hearing recently.
  4. My parent has started a new prescription that makes them drowsy.

If so, it may be time to talk to your parents and their health care provider about whether they’re safe to drive.

Warning Signs That It’s Time to Take the Keys

Look for these common warning signs that your parents might not be safe driving:

  • They’re getting lost on routes that should be familiar to them
  • They have unexplained new dents or scratches on their car
  • They’re receiving tickets for driving violations
  • They’ve had a crash or a near-miss recently
  • They get overwhelmed by road signs and markings
  • They started taking a medication that might impact their driving skills
  • They speed or drive too slowly
  • People are complaining to you about your parents’ driving skills

If you begin to have any concerns — even if it’s just a gut feeling that something’s not right — it’s time for the talk.

Starting a Conversation with Your Parents About (Not) Driving

Fact: Almost 83% of elderly drivers age 65 and older don’t speak to family members or health care providers about their ability to still drive safely.

Starting a conversation with your parents can be hard. You don’t want them to feel like you’re taking their independence away. You want to be compassionate and avoid any defensiveness or confrontation, especially since elderly drivers who stop driving are two times more likely to develop depression.

Here are 6 tips for approaching this conversation from the Road Safety Foundation:

  1. Observe your parent’s driving abilities. Do they follow all the rules? How alert are they while driving? Keep track of your notes — and use your observations as explanations for your concerns. Avoid confrontations with your parents about your recent lack of confidence in their driving. Never accuse them of being an unsafe driver or demand that they must stop driving right away.
  2. Involve your parents in the decision-making process. Working together can open up the dialogue to admitting that there are no easy solutions — and adjusting to the change will take time for everyone involved. Reassure them they will maintain their independence in other aspects of their life.
  3. Start the conversation early — make this a regular topic over time. That way they won’t be blindsided if they ever do need to completely stop driving. Share your concerns with them during a one-on-one meeting. They may feel ganged up on if you have a large family meeting.
  4. Talk to their health care providers, a law enforcement officer, an elder law attorney, or a geriatric care manager about:
    • Scheduling a comprehensive driving test for your parents
    • Retraining or vehicle modifications for them — such as wider mirrors, a steering wheel cover, or a visor extension
    • Independent living skills evaluation
    • Medical transportation services
  5. Acknowledge their feelings and approach them respectfully — especially when mentioning incidents as a result of accidents, vision problems, dementia, or even small strokes.
  6. Discuss alternative transportation options, like only driving during the day or in clear weather. If they can no longer drive, you can create a weekly schedule of their activities and arrange transportation from:
    • Personal drivers
    • Community-based ridesharing
    • Ridesharing apps
    • Family members

The American Automobile Association (AAA) allows you to locate transportation programs in your area on their website.

If your parents aren’t quite ready to give up the keys just yet, there are some programs available to help ensure their safety. They can sign up for an event at CarFit, which is a program that aims to educate older drivers on how their cars should fit them.

Sometimes just a simple adjustment to ensure a proper fit that is comfortable for them can help improve their safety and the safety of others on the road.

Here are the 3 main issues technicians will look at:

  • Driver’s seat positioning — driver may be too close to the steering wheel
  • Foot positioning — driver may be stretching to reach the pedal
  • Mirror positioning — driver may not know how to properly adjust their mirrors to reduce blind spots

CarFit has events available across the country, and it only takes about 20 minutes for the technicians to check a vehicle.

Another option to keep your parents safe on the road is the AARP Smart Driver Course. This program is for drivers 50 and older.

A primary care provider is a great place to start if you have concerns about your parents’ driving. Call Stormont Vail Health at (785) 270-0082 to schedule an appointment for you or your parents with a Stormont Vail primary care provider.

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