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Taking the keys: When seniors need to stop driving

Published: Sunday, April 22 2012 4:36 p.m. MDT

On the AARP website, warning signs of trouble include being easily distracted while driving, hitting curbs, trouble merging, poor judgment making left turns and failure to follow traffic signs and signals. You look for patterns, not a single incident. Others add to the list. Being overly cautious or slow is dangerous. Medications can impair ability. Senior Helpers, which among other services offers drivers for hire, notes that sleep issues, common to the elderly, impair driving and slow reflexes. Jody Gastfriend, vice president at Care.com, says concerned kin should check recent driving records that, along with dings and dents, can warn that ability is fading.

A rough conversation

Marion Somers, known as eldercare adviser "Dr. Marion," remembers her conversation with her own dad as the worst of her life. She lived in New York, he was in Florida, but she was the family's "designated doer of taking away the keys." She rode with him to see how bad his driving really was. It was awful. His skill had "diminished at an alarming rate." She said she was concerned by what she'd seen, but mostly she was worried for him. "Could you live with hitting a child?" she asked. She put the focus on hurting someone else so he wouldn't dig in his heels and shoo her away.

They made a list of the things he had to drive to do. Then they tackled them. It was not one conversation, but a series. She looked into public transportation options and found they'd take him half the places he needed to go. So they practiced getting there by bus to build up his confidence. They sold his car and put the money into a transportation account with which she paid his taxi bill each month. When it ran out, she paid it. "To not have to run down to Florida for some emergency caused by his driving was worth it to me," she says. And they recruited friends for activities, like taking him to religious services.

Just saying that's it, though, is not enough. Somers says to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles and the car insurance company, then turn in the license plates. Make sure the eyeglass prescription is right, that hearing is appropriate, as well. Sometimes, adjusting one of those solves the driving problem for a while. Her dad got a three-wheeled cycle so he could "toot around the community and be outdoors and independent." She found a grocer who delivered when he couldn't get out.

If you don't live nearby, she says, check with neighbors. They know and they're concerned. When you talk on the phone, really talk. And really listen. Most elderly learn to fake being fine because they fear losing independence. The fa?de is hard to maintain. "Mental deterioration on any level shows up within 20 minutes."

"It is crucial to have your parents look at transportation alternatives well before giving up the car keys," says John Z. Wetmore, of Bethesda, Md., producer of the cable TV series "Perils for Pedestrians." "Do your parents know where the local bus routes go? Have they ever used the bus? Simple things like not knowing what the fare is, or how transfers work, can be embarrassing to a grown adult. It is easier to give up driving if they are already making occasional use of the alternatives while they are still driving."

eHow.com recommends having a parent take a driver's test — something most states don't require. The results can make it easier for a parent with diminished capacity to accept that driving's no longer a good option.

No time to waste

Eric Ward himself recognized as his 85th birthday approached that driving wasn't safe and offered his daughter, Pat Hoyrup, his prized possession, a Lincoln Continental. She jumped on the plane from her Coupeville, Wash., home. "I didn't give him time to change his mind." She'd been wondering how to approach the topic.

Daniel Gray's conversation with his mom took place when he picked her up after she'd been pulled over for hitting some mailboxes. She blamed medications but recognized "her driving days were over," he says. "The following years were challenging, and I spent a significant amount of time ferrying Mom about, but I wouldn't trade them for the world. I test drive cars and have great memories of helping Mom climb in and out of a wide range of vehicles in our travels, from a Camaro SS to a Mini Cooper convertible. Cadillacs to Prius, we had some great conversations."

To do it right, "you can't simply take away the keys," says Gray, of Belle Mead, N.J. "They have to be hung up voluntarily, while there's still some quality time left."

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