In a perfect world your aging mother or father realizes that their eyesight, reaction time or concentration is failing and they voluntarily and kindly hand you the car keys.
Unfortunately, the reality for many families is much different. Voices are raised, hurtful words exchanged, keys are hidden, threats are made and worse.
But there is a better and calmer way forward for both you and your parents. Here are 6 tips:
1. Be empathetic
You know that driving means independence, and older adults are often in declining supply of it, from being able to travel long distances for family gatherings to driving to the grocery store for a quart of milk.
Tell your parents you know how important driving is to their daily life and overall well-being but that you are concerned about their safety. “Let’s look into this together” is a good first step. Become a partner, not an adversary.
2. Enlist the help of experts.
But a caveat: Driver license laws vary by state and not all have special provisions for older drivers, such as routine vision testing, so you can’t necessarily depend on a license renewal as an indicator of ability behind the wheel.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has put together an informal self-assessment called “Drivers 65 Plus: Check Your Performance” that you could both review. More hands-on is a professional evaluation of driving skills conducted by trained driving instructors, or you can explore a refresher driving course. (Organizations like AARP, AAA or your car insurance company can help you find a class.)
A medical evaluation is also helpful. We always think about vision problems, but there are several health concerns when it comes to safe driving: hearing loss, stiff joints and muscles, cognitive decline, slower reaction time and reflexes, and medication side effects. Talk with your parent’s doctor together about these and any other health concerns.
3. Ask for input
…from mutual family and friends that you both trust. Other people have probably been passengers when your mom or dad was behind the wheel. Did they feel unsafe? Have they broached the subject with your parent? Have they been in the car at night? If you live out of town, have they noticed any new dents?
4. Crunch the numbers
Find out how much your parent is paying each year to own a car. If they have been in recent accidents or gotten tickets the car insurance premiums have gone up, plus there are parking, maintenance and registration costs. Add up the numbers and explore other ways that the money could be used, which brings us to Tip Number 5.
5. Research transportation options
Nothing can replace having your own set of wheels 24/7, but today there are choices beyond buses and taxis. Most cities have access to ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, and while it may mean a smartphone upgrade and a bit of app training, many older adults are finding it the second-best thing.
“Transportation experts see ride-hailing as a way to improve mobility and preserve independence for older people who can or should no longer drive, or never did,” Paula Span writes in The New York Times.
If your parent is considering a move to a retirement community find out what transportation services it provides. Many communities have vans to take residents to doctor appointments, nearby restaurants, concerts and the like.
6. Appeal to your parent’s compassion
If you tell your parent you are worried they might be injured or killed in a car accident, you might hear a brazen reply like, “Well I’m ready to go.” But express concern that they might hurt a young mother, a child or another innocent driver and they are more likely to listen.
Here are a few more tips from the National Institute on Aging:
- Avoid confrontation. Use “I” messages rather than “You” messages. For example, say, “I am concerned about your safety when you are driving,” rather than, “You’re no longer a safe driver.”
- Stick to the issue. Discuss the driver’s skills, not his or her age.
- Focus on maintaining independence. Be clear that the goal is for your parent to continue the activities he or she currently enjoys, and you will do all you can to help them stay independent.
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