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When It's Time for Your Parent to Stop Driving

Senior Alert

According to AARP, the six most common problems with older drivers are failure to yield the right of way, making improper left turns, negotiating blind spots, getting on and off freeways, backing up, and slow reaction times.

Having community services available is one thing, but getting to them is another. The ability to get up and go whenever you please, to wherever you please, is deep in the American psyche. Where would we be without cars? Having a set of wheels gets Mom and Dad to friends, family, shopping, a job, vacation, the movies, their favorite restaurant, church, golf, bowling, doctor appointments, rehab, volunteering, and educational events. Take the wheels away, and they're cut off from the outside world they've created.

If your parents need any of the community services I've been describing to you, then it's likely that they're struggling with conditions that place their ability to drive at risk. For example, if your dad can't do chores anymore because of poor eyesight or because he's too shaky on a stepladder; he's probably having trouble yielding the right of way or merging into traffic. If Mom or Dad needs adult day care, he or she definitely shouldn't be driving.

So, how do you know when it's time for your parents to retire from driving? And when they do stop driving, how do you keep them mobile in a car-dependent society?

Should Miss Daisy Be Driving?

Senior Alert

Of all the age groups in the U.S. population, older folks take the most medication. Many of these medications can cause side effects that impair driving. Painkillers, high blood pressure medicines, not eating properly with medications, or not keeping up with fluids can cause confusion and impaired vision and judgment. Make sure your parent is aware of the side effects of medicines—they can be just as lethal a mix as drinking and driving!

We all age differently, and though it's certain that we will have some deficiencies as we age, some of us fare better than others. So assuming that everyone over a certain age should simply stop driving is unfair and would surely cause a revolution. On the other hand, folks over 80 are more likely than people in any other age group to experience conditions that do affect their ability to drive safely. Vision, especially is affected. The older eye experiences …

  • Sensitivity to bright lights causing older drivers to see glare from oncoming traffic at night and on sunny days.
  • A decrease in depth perception, making parallel parking and left turns very difficult.
  • A decrease in the ability to focus, resulting in hampered judgment of distances and speed.
  • A decrease in peripheral (side) vision, leading to difficulties in yielding the right of way.
  • Conditions of cataracts (clouding of the lens), glaucoma (squeezed optic nerve), and macular degeneration (blocked central field of vision), which all seriously compromise one's ability to drive.

Besides vision problems, Mom is more likely to experience lack of flexibility when she turns her neck to back up, or when she glances to the side to merge into traffic.

Assessing the Situation

One way to assess whether or not any of these conditions or problems are seriously affecting your parents' ability to drive is to have them take you for a spin. Now I suggest you don't whip out a clipboard and test them like your high school driver's ed instructor, but do keep in mind the six most common problems older drivers have.

If Mom or Dad's driving has some moderate difficulties, then suggest some basic tips such as …

  • Identify routes to favorite places that don't use freeways, or that don't involve merges or left-hand turns.
  • Get glare-reduction sunglasses for nighttime driving.
  • Drive with a passenger to assist with right-of-way decisions.
  • Increase the distance between Mom or Dad's car and other drivers to compensate for his or her slower reaction times.
  • Suggest your parent take a driver refresher course like AARP's 55 ALIVE Mature Driving Program (see the following Sage Source) to reduce the insurance premium.
  • If Mom is having difficulty seeing over the dashboard, go to an auto store and get a seat cushion; you can also pick up a device to raise the gas pedal.
  • Start getting your parent to be less car-dependent, so you can ease the transition into a nondriver lifestyle. Start arranging transportation to Mom and Dad's favorite places, identify shuttle services, and take advantage of free deliveries (from groceries, pharmacies, doctor's offices).
  • Have your parents get their eyesight checked and keep up on the side effects of medications they're taking.
  • Add small blind-spot mirrors on side mirrors.
  • Get your parents to apply for a graduated license that excludes nighttime driving. This might ease their transition into giving up their full license later. Some insurance companies will offer discounts for graduated licenses that might be the carrot to convince your parents to go for it.

Voluntary Restrictions

Many older drivers voluntarily begin restricting their own driving. The first to go is nighttime driving, quickly followed by ventures on the freeways. Your parents may also decide to stay clear of rush hour and drive only on familiar routes. This might suit them fine, posing few risks to themselves or others. But there will come a time when it is no longer safe for them to be behind the wheel. Like it or not, it's your duty to intervene. If you have doubts about your parent's ability to drive safely, ask Mom or Dad to take the following quiz.

More on: Aging Parents


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Caring for Aging Parents © 2001 by Linda Colvin Rhodes, Ed.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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