This Question Comes Up In Almost Every Family
When is it time to take the keys away from mom or dad? How do we do it? Is there a “one size fits all” approach? Is there a kinder, gentler way to do it? How do we promote safety, while allowing for mobility and flexibility?
Vicki Spraul of Gray Matters Alliance has some great insights and solutions for seniors and their transportation needs.
A Few Facts and Figures
Research made available by the AAA shows that the percentage of seniors driving is trending up. Basically, we are outliving our ability to drive safely by an average of 7 to 10 years. We have to face the inevitable. Medical and other conditions will diminish our capacity to drive well. For seniors, recovery after a crash often takes longer, with more vulnerability to fatality.
• Many seniors (80 percent of those in their 70s) suffer from arthritis, making it painful and harder to operate a motor vehicle well.
• Seniors are largely unaware of the impact their medications have on driving performance.
• Fatal crash rates begin to increase dramatically at around 80 years of age. Due to frailty, the risk of injury and medical complications is compounded.
• From 1999 to 2009 the number of licensed drivers over 65 years of age increased 20 percent.
• More details on the statistics can be seen here.
Senior Driving is an Emotional Subject
By the time we’re asking whether an aging parent should be driving, they’re likely to have already faced several losses. Their career has typically long ended, they’ve possibly lost a spouse and several friends. They might not be in their long time familiar home.
The thought of losing independence and one of the most fundamental adult privileges isn’t pleasant. There is no clear, automatic signal that tells us when or how to transition to alternative forms of transportation.
As we age, we know there are potential dangers related to seniors and driving. When do those dangers become real? And how will we still do all the other things we want to do? Family members disagree about their parents’ driving skills. The parents feel the friction, adding to the emotion.
Age Itself is Not a Factor
Some have proposed that driving should stop at a certain age. What we know however, is that the appropriate age to stop driving is not universal. It’s not about opinions and a number. It’s about facts and skills. For a variety of reasons, some begin to lose capability in their sixties. Others are fully capable at ninety. Honestly, some of us are terrible drivers throughout our entire adult life.
Cognitive function isn’t the only thing in question. Hearing, eyesight, and the mechanical function of arms, hands and feet are also considerations. And it’s not just about operating the car. If mom uses a walker, can she maneuver the device in the parking lot, getting it in and out of that little car she loves?
So the question looms. How do you know when it’s time to give up (or take away) the keys?
Start with Observation
Frankly, it’s not fair to make assumptions about a parent’s driving ability. A single traffic ticket after a lifelong perfect record might not spell doom. Their driving habits might still be better than yours. Let them drive on occasion while you observe. That will shed some light.
You can also learn a lot by observing other aspects of life. Are daily habits showing signs of change? If the house is clean and the fridge is stocked, those are good signs. If their daily routine is deteriorating, that may be a clue.
Self-awareness serves you well, if you start refreshing skills and paying attention to your own limitations very early on.
Assessments Play an Important Role
The objectivity of a third party comes in handy for several reasons. For family members who are a long distance from their parents, observation is difficult. Also important, is the fact that parents are more likely to accept objective input from someone outside the family circle. More importantly, it gives the driver room to become more self-aware and reach their own conclusions.
Looking beyond the steering wheel, Vicki and her company offer senior assessments. Requests come from family, clergy or directly from the senior driver. It starts with building trust and casual observations about surroundings, and whether daily habits are being well maintained. The next step relates to cognitive exercises like the clock drawing test, that sometimes offers very telling information.
The next step is an evaluation in the car. It involves driving to familiar places in their own car. This takes the pressure off, allowing them to perform naturally.
The result of the evaluation varies. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. The senior might be fine to drive as they always have. There may be a recommendation to refrain from driving in bad weather, darkness, or rush hour traffic. They might need to stick to a few regular, familiar destinations.
Work Through the Options
Transportation choices aren’t limited to the way a senior uses their own car. Instead, they can use one of several services available. A combination of service with their own car is often a great solution. One arrangement, for example, might be for them to use their own car to visit friends and head for Walgreens. Some other form of transportation, like GoGoGrandparent, can be used to catch an evening ball game or take an unplanned trip to a local festival.
Truthfully, by exploring the many transitional options, a senior may find a whole new world opening up to them. Fewer restrictions, more opportunities and reduced car maintenance. They may eventually decide to ditch their car altogether. And if the decision is their own, they’re better off for it.
Have the Discussion BEFORE There’s a Problem
Why not take the pressure off long before the fact? Avoid fretful nights, heated arguments and painful decisions. If you’re having family discussions about wills, trusts and medical powers of attorney, why not talk about transitional transportation needs as well?
Vicki suggests a Family Agreement Form. Rather than a legally binding document, it’s simply a record of what was agreed upon. It might describe the “triggers” indicating when it’s time to make certain changes, and what those changes might be. It might not be referred to for many years. But it can be used for self-aware seniors to take their own action, or for adult children to encourage a parent to start making changes.
Is it Time?
What is it “time” for in your family? Is it time to have a discussion? Time to have an evaluation? What about estate planning documents? It’s never too early to get started on those.