How to Talk to Seniors About Driving Safely

May 3, 2013

By Staff Writer State Farm™ Employee

Driving impairment doesn't just affect seniors. It also indirectly affects their adult children, who frequently have to take on the role of caregiver. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times reported that 77 million baby boomers are now confronted with this reality. In addition, impaired elderly drivers are a danger to themselves, as well as the public. That's why it's important to recognize the warning signs and find a positive way to discuss this sensitive subject.

Driving Issues of Aging Parents

Ever since Henry Ford invented the Model T, Americans have depended on the automobile as their primary mode of transportation. For most of us, the auto is the symbol of independence and freedom. But as we age, our driving skills can diminish. Our vision, hearing, reaction time, and physical flexibility can be reduced over time, impairing driving acuity.

Many factors can cause an elderly parent to become impaired behind the wheel, including:

  • Strokes
  • Macular degeneration
  • Arthritis
  • Hearing loss
  • New medication adjustments
  • Dementia

What are the warning signs of senior driving impairment? How can you determine if your parent can no longer drive safely?

The Warning Signs of Impaired Driving

As a guide for caregivers, AARP has compiled ten major warning signs of impaired driving:

  • Frequent accident close calls
  • Unexplained dents on the car
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Difficulty seeing traffic signals and signs
  • Delayed physical reaction between the gas pedal and brake pedal
  • Uncertain judgment calls at intersections and highways
  • Road rage incidents
  • Distraction while driving
  • Difficulty looking over the shoulder before changing lanes
  • Multiple traffic tickets

If your parent exhibits one or more of these behaviors, perhaps it's time to have a friendly chat.

Talking to Your Parent about Driving

To seniors, driving is not a privilege. Driving represents freedom, independence, self-sufficiency, and personal power. To many seniors, taking away their driving privileges is the ultimate indignity of getting older.

So how do you talk to an elderly parent about their diminished driving skills? Many experts say that creating a game plan before talking to your elderly parents can greatly enhance your odds for a successful outcome. In his book How to Say it to Seniors, author David Solie has some sensible suggestions:

  • Have realistic expectations. One conversation will probably not resolve the issue.
  • Know your role. You can't force your parent to give up the car keys. You can only advise.
  • Put yourself in your parent's shoes. To gain personal empathy on this matter, consider not driving your own vehicle for a few weeks before your talk. It might help to give you a perspective on what you are asking your parent to give up. 
  • Pick a quiet time. When talking to your parent, do so in a relaxed atmosphere. Don't talk about this issue when there are many things going on at once.
  • Don't come on too strong. Be gentle. Talk in a calm, friendly voice.
  • Ask questions. Don't assume you have all the answers. Ask your parent questions. Have there been any driving difficulties lately?  Has there been a recent fall or a new medication?
  • Listen deductively. Your parent might already be aware that there is a problem. If you listen carefully to what your parent says, you might pick up on important clues dropped in conversations.
  • Ask for input. Include your parent in finding a solution to the problem. Don't try to impose a new set of rules. Collaborate instead of dictate.
  • Allow time to reflect. Don't expect a solution all it once. Allow your parent the time to digest all the options. Agree to revisit the issues in a few days or a week.

If talking to your parent is simply too difficult, you might consider bringing in a trusted physician. A valued second opinion can take some of the burden off your shoulders.

The physician might suggest hiring a driver rehabilitation specialist to help ascertain the driving skills of your parent more concretely. A driver rehabilitation specialist is a certified professional trained in evaluating the various medical conditions that could impair a driver's readiness and reflexes. If the evaluation is not positive, the driver rehabilitation specialist can be engaged to write a letter to the state's Department of Motor Vehicles office with recommendations for a future course of action, which might include revoking driving privileges.

Creating a Mobility Plan

If a parent's driving privileges are finally revoked, creating a "mobility plan" can help take the sting out of not being behind the wheel. Your plan should include:

  • Connecting more often. Talk or visit your parent more often, and schedule frequent family outings.
  • Volunteering to drive. Be available to take your parent shopping to avoid feelings of isolation.
  • Encouraging public transportation. Show your parent how to get around using local transportation to encourage independence.
  • Talking to your parent's friends. Ask their help in keeping your parent engaged in positive, life-affirming activities.
  • Helping your parent find new passions. Encourage your parent to take up new leisure activities that don't involve driving, such as exercising, gardening, or bird-watching.
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