Getting older doesn’t have to mean that your parent can no longer drive. Senior driving allows seniors to maintain their independence, cultivate an active lifestyle, and sustain relationships with loved ones. Senior driving can also pose a serious danger when vision worsens, thinking isn’t what it used to be, and reflexes become slower.
Giving up driving doesn’t have to mean sacrificing independence. Many young people choose not to drive due to safety or environmental concerns. They lead active and fulfilling lives. Your parent can, too.
Here are some signs that your senior parent should no longer be driving—and what to do when you notice them.
Signs Your Senior Parent Should No Longer Be Driving
Driving requires an odd set of skills. That makes it hard to predict which seniors will struggle with it. Some seniors remain able drivers even as their memories decline or their personalities change. Others become unsafe drivers even when they seem to otherwise be healthy.
Advanced age alone isn’t a reason to take a senior’s driver’s license. So don’t let ageist ideas color your perceptions. As your parent ages, however, you should be prepared to monitor his or her driving. Here are some signs to look for:
1. Car Accidents and Tickets
Most people have a car accident at some point during their lives. The same is true of tickets. But is your parent accumulating accidents and tickets at an alarming rate? Most car accidents can be avoided, and most tickets are preventable. A sudden increase in driving problems suggests your parent is declining.
2. Damage to the Car
Many seniors who continue driving when they shouldn’t know they’re making a dangerous decision. So they don’t tell loved ones about accidents and tickets. Look for evidence on the car. Do you see unusual dents or scratches? If damage to the car is accompanied by bumps or bruises on your parent, they might be a sign he or she has been in an accident.
3. Uncontrolled Vision or Hearing Loss
Seeing and hearing are vital to safe driving. If glasses or hearing aids enable your parent to see or hear, he or she can keep driving—as long as he or she wears these corrective devices each and every time. If your parent refuses to wear his or her glasses or hearing aids, or if those aids no longer do enough to correct your parent’s impairments, he or she is no longer a safe driver.
4. Drug or Alcohol Abuse
Stereotypes about older people present them as sweet and innocent. Advancing age doesn’t quash problems with alcohol or drugs. Instead, the problem often becomes worse. If your parent abuses alcohol or drugs, it’s time to take the keys.
Some prescription drugs can also pose a problem. Talk to your parent’s doctor about potential drug interactions. Some sedatives and sleeping pills, anti-anxiety medications, painkillers, and many other drugs can impair your parent’s driving. If your parent behaves differently under the influence of a prescription drug, he or she likely drives differently, too.
5. Slow Reaction Times
Good driving requires quick reflexes. If your parent’s reaction times are slowed, he or she could get into a serious accident. How does your parent respond to sudden loud noises? Is he or she able to quickly shift attention and respond to emergencies? If not, it might be time for him or her to quit driving.
Long before cognitive issues such as dementia steal memories, they steal attention. Even otherwise healthy seniors may struggle with a short attention span. If your parent seems unusually distractible, he or she might drift into another lane or not notice a stoplight. Look for half-completed tasks, drifting off in conversation, or a tendency to rapidly jump from one topic or task to another.
7. Communication Issues
Safe driving isn’t just about driving itself. Your parent must also be able to communicate with police officers if he or she is pulled over. He or she needs to be able to ask for directions if he or she is lost and to call for help with a cell phone. If your parent has serious communication issues, it might be time for him or her to quit driving. Some forms of dementia, such as primary progressive aphasia, rob a senior of the ability to speak before they undermine cognition. If your parent can’t find a way to compensate for these issues—such as by writing or using a communication board—then he or she might not be able to get the help he or she needs in an emergency.
8. Bad Driving
The most obvious sign that it’s time to take your parent’s keys is that he or she has become a bad driver. Ride with your parent. Do you feel afraid? Would you let your child get into the car with your parent? Every driver makes mistakes, but if your parent is obviously struggling, it might be time to have a difficult conversation to protect his or her safety.
The Role of Your Parent’s Doctor
If you’re concerned about your parent’s driving, his or her doctor can be a helpful ally. A skilled physician can often administer an evaluation to assess if a senior is fit to drive. So consider asking your parent if you can discuss his or her driving at his or her next doctor’s appointment.
But what if your parent won’t let you talk to his or her doctor? You might still get some support. In Delaware, California, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Oregon, doctors are required to report potentially dangerous senior drivers.
About half of the remaining states encourage doctors to report dangerous senior drivers but do not require them to do so. This means that unless you live in a mandatory reporting state, you will likely have to take matters into your own hands.
How States Regulate Senior Driving
Every state has its own laws governing senior driving. In Alabama, for example, every driver must renew his or her license every four years. Seniors are no different and face no additional requirements. Arizona requires a vision test every five years beginning at 65, while Florida allows anyone to anonymously report a potentially unsafe driver.
No state will automatically revoke a senior’s license based solely on a single report, and most don’t exhaustively test seniors’ ability to keep driving. This means that, unless a senior has had many accidents, families must handle concerns about driving safety.
Talking to Your Parent About His or Her Driving
In 2015, seniors age 65 or older accounted for 18 percent of all traffic fatalities. You might not want to fight with your parent over his or her driving. Consider that you’re fighting for your parent’s life and you might be more willing to have the argument.
It’s easy to feel frustrated by a parent who stubbornly keeps driving. Consider things from his or her perspective. To a senior, driving might feel like the only way to remain independent. And who wants to be dependent on others to get around? Seniors often lead vibrant, active lives that require the ability to easily go from one place to another. Your parent’s desire to live a meaningful life hasn’t gone away just because he or she is a little older. So you can’t frame the conversation in terms that highlight taking something away—or that make your parent feel he or she will be more dependent on others.
Instead, begin the conversation by expressing concern about your parent’s well-being. Don’t force the issue. Keep things light and allow your parent time to think. Then revisit it a few weeks later. This can help ward off an initial defensive reaction. Continue having the conversation over time. With each conversation, be prepared to compassionately address your parent’s concerns.
Alternatives to Driving
If you hope to convince your parent to sacrifice his or her license, you must be willing to give him or her a reasonable alternative to driving. Seniors deserve independence and joy just as much as anyone else. The fact that your parent can no longer drive does not mean he or she is no longer interested in leaving his or her home.
As part of the conversation with your parent about his or her driving, talk to him or her about meaningful alternatives to driving. Those might include:
- Public transportation: Does he or she live near a bus or rail line?
- Taxis: Can you help your parent find a taxi service?
- Lyft or Uber: Can you show your parent how to use ride-sharing services? These services can also offer much-needed socialization.
- Senior transportation services: Some organizations offer senior transportation shuttles to community centers, grocery stores, and other popular stops.
- Help from family members: If your parent can’t access any other options, the family must be prepared to shoulder the burden of driving. Can each family member agree to help on a different day of the week? Help from family is likeliest to work when family members share the work rather than asking a single person to do it all.
Treat the discussion of your parent’s driving as a collaborative endeavor, not something you’re forcing on your parent. No one likes to be controlled. Your aging parent, however stubborn, is no different.