When you think about the last time you jumped in the car as a passenger with your older loved one behind the wheel, was it a pleasant experience or one that caused you a bit of anxiety?
If your drive together left you feeling nervous, you aren’t alone. Most adult children find themselves eventually having a conversation with their siblings or partners about their older parent’s driving abilities.
Even though having concerns about driving are common, that conversation is hardly an easy one to have. You certainly don’t want to bring up the subject unless you’re sure your loved one is indeed an unsafe driver. You also don’t want to wait too long to talk about it.
We’re here to cut through some of the worries and give you the facts about senior driving that could help you find the courage to have the conversation before someone gets injured in a car accident.
Facts About Seniors Driving
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as recently as 2018, there were more than 45 million licensed drivers over the age of 65—and that number has only increased. With that large group on the road, as well as with the challenges that can come with aging, older adults are at a higher risk of vehicle accidents. In fact, every day more than 20 older adults are killed in vehicle accidents, and about 700 older adults are injured in crashes.
Driving requires a lot of hand-eye coordination, quick decision-making, and critical thinking. Keeping up with the fast pace of a local road or interstate also requires paying attention and a keen focus. Unfortunately, aging can make driving more difficult due to decreased vision or hearing, decreased attention span, and cognitive decline. Further, certain medications can cause drowsiness or negatively affect that ever-important attention span or hand-eye coordination. These aging challenges are reasons why older adults have significantly higher crash rates per mile than their younger peers.
It’s important to note that not all adults over the age of 65 are poor drivers or should be taken off the road. In fact, driving is seen as a major component of independence, self-esteem, and empowerment among older adults.
Questions to Determine if My Senior Parent Should Be Driving
How do you know when your loved one is no longer safe to drive? Here are a few questions to consider when determining their risk.
1. How is my loved one’s mobility?
Getting in and out of the car, as well as operating gas and brake pedals, requires quite a bit of strength and mobility. Be sure your loved one has the range of motion required to drive, as well as the strength to push gas and brake pedals and the fine motor skills to grip a steering wheel or activate a blinker.
If your loved one has any weakness on one side, or if they are unable to safely get in and out of the car, they should be evaluated by a physician before getting behind the wheel. Any condition that causes shaking or unsteady hands or legs will also cause serious concerns during driving tasks.
2. Does my loved one have a diagnosis of dementia?
Cognitive functioning is imperative for safe driving, and although it seems obvious that anyone with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia cannot drive, someone living in the very early stages of the disease might still find themselves wanting to be behind the wheel.
Any type of cognitive decline, including mild cognitive impairment, can make driving unsafe. Work with your loved one’s physician to discuss any concerns about cognitive decline and how to begin a conversation about driving.
3. What types of medications does my loved one take?
It’s common for older adults to be on more than one medication daily, which can make keeping up with side effects a bit more difficult.
Medications that cause drowsiness can negatively affect attention span and hand-eye coordination, which makes it unsafe to drive while taking them. The Federal Drug Administration states that medications used for pain relief, to reduce seizures, and even to reduce anxiety can make getting behind the wheel a dangerous proposition.
It is okay if you don’t know your loved one’s current medication regimen, let alone the potential side effects. Talk to your loved one’s pharmacist and ask them to look over your loved one’s medications and let you know if any could cause unsafe driving conditions.
4. How is my loved one’s vision?
Vision challenges during the daytime and nighttime can make driving more stressful and more dangerous. Speak candidly with your loved one’s optometrist to determine if getting behind the wheel is safe considering any issues they may have with their vision.
Recent reports have demonstrated that older drivers are more likely to have diminished vision as well as be more impacted by light glare and halo, which can make nighttime driving especially dangerous. This might mean that your loved one should avoid driving in the evening and nighttime hours, but that they can still handle safely driving during the daytime.
5. What activities does my loved one use their vehicle for currently?
For many older adults, having a vehicle means having independence and the ability to go where they want, when they want. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all older adults are jumping in their vehicles daily. In fact, some older adults can find driving quite stressful and choose to leave their car parked in the garage more often than taking it out on the road.
If you’re worried about your loved one’s driving abilities, you can begin to research other alternatives for getting them from place to place before you bring it up. In many cases, you can find other options such as senior transportation services or public transportation that will still offer them the ability to get to their grocery store, bank, place of worship, or favorite restaurant. However, you must start by determining what events or activities they are currently driving to and how often those events occur.
Next Steps for Safe Senior Driving
If you’re worried about your senior loved one driving, enlist the assistance and expertise of their physician. Share your worries and see if your loved one’s physical or cognitive ability makes it unsafe to drive. Then their physician can bring up the topic to your loved one, removing you from the role of the “bad guy” when it comes to possibly taking away their keys.
Work with your loved one to build a list of resources that can provide transportation assistance. Include the names and phone numbers of family members, friends, and neighbors who would be up for giving your loved one a ride as needed, as well as local resources and transportation options.
Learn more about how to determine if your loved one is safe to be on the road by answering a few questions on this quick assessment. You’ll get immediate feedback so that you can feel confident about what you should do next in order to keep your loved one safe on the road.