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Ohio Department of Aging Boomerang: It all comes back to you!

Boomerang: It all comes back to you!

My Family - June 2010

Having "The Talk," Part 1 - Hanging up the Keys
Know When the Time Is Right, Then Discuss Options

Remember how excited you were to get your driver's license? Being able to drive was the height of freedom and independence. You could go where you wanted, whenever you wanted, and didn't depend on others to satisfy your basic needs. Losing the privilege to drive was something you quickly grew to fear. You learned to drive safely and follow traffic laws to avoid having the right to get behind the wheel taken away. As you get older, you never really lose this sense of insecurity that this incredible freedom could be taken away.

Changes that come naturally with age may affect a person's ability to safely operate an automobile.Yet, each year, thousands of families face the task of asking an aging loved one to hang up the keys for his safety and that of others. Changes that come naturally with age - such as reduced audio and visual acuity, slower reaction time and decreased flexibility and range of motion in the neck or extremities - may affect a person's ability to safely operate an automobile. Most older drivers are aware of these changes and will gradually limit or stop their own driving when they feel it isn't safe. Others, however, may need some persuasion.

Talking to a family member or friend about limiting their driving or giving up their car keys requires careful thought and planning. It's likely that no one, regardless of age, wants to be told he is a dangerous driver. It gets more difficult when it is you who is telling your parent or grandparent that they probably shouldn't be on the road. Thus, we put off broaching the subject because we fear how our loved one will react.

So, when is the right time to have "the talk"? According to AARP, it may be time to limit a loved one's driving when she:

  • Has frequent "close calls" (e.g., nearly hitting other motorists, pedestrians or stationary objects);
  • Exhibits difficulty seeing or following traffic signals, road signs and pavement markings;
  • Responds more slowly to unexpected situations;
  • Misjudges traffic at intersections and on highway entrance and exit ramps;
  • Experiences "road rage" or reports frustration with other drivers;
  • Becomes easily distracted or has difficulty concentrating while driving;
  • Starts getting dents and scrapes on the car and on fences, mailboxes, garage doors or curbs;
  • Gets lost; or
  • Receives multiple traffic tickets or warnings from law enforcement officers.

Start your discussion out of a sincere sense of caring for the person's well-being, and base your conversation on things you have observed. Focus on what she can do well and avoid criticism. Talk about ideas you have for keeping your loved one on the road, rather than immediately suggesting that they give up driving, such as agreeing to simple trips around a small town during the day, or no driving on highways during rush hour. She may more easily agree to avoid driving in some situations than accept stopping completely.

Send a clear message that you want to help her keep driving as long as she safely can. Let her know you support her decision and will be there for her no matter what she chooses. If she is willing, suggest a classroom refresher course, such as the AARP Driver Safety Program or have her driving ability evaluated by a driving instructor, his local bureau of motor vehicles office or highway patrol post.

If she refuses to make changes, ask a doctor, a member of the clergy or a trusted family friend to help. If you feel her continued driving poses an immediate risk to her or others around her, contact the local bureau of motor vehicles and report unsafe driving. Most states will contact an older adult who has been reported for dangerous driving and ask her to take a driving test.

Identify other people in your loved one's life that need to be involved in the discussion. Many times, a sibling or a spouse may put up more of a fight for your loved one's right to drive than she does. To have a successful conversation, the entire family needs to be on the same page. Share your observations, be honest and expect resistance.

Most importantly, know how much of your own time and resources you are willing to devote to keeping your loved one safe. Are you willing and able to help fill in the gaps of independence that she may feel when she decides to stop driving or to drive less? Will others do so, too? Ask what you can do to make the transition easier.