Sooooo … You found some new scratches/ dents on your parent’s car. Or you saw a driving citation on the kitchen table. Or it took your loved one 45 minutes to drive the 20-minute route to your house. What do you do when the warning bells go off ? Does the family start making jokes about a senior driver or just out and out refuse to ride with him or her?
On the serious side, it really isn’t a laughing matter.
Taking away the car keys or a driver’s license, disabling the car or even selling the car should be a last resort. To the family member with the impaired driving ability or in the early stages of dementia, such actions can seem extreme and even disrespectful. And these senior family members can easily ignore, undo or maneuver around those strategies by driving without a license, enabling the disabled car or buying a new car to replace one that was sold. As one person with dementia noted, “If they disabled my car, I would call someone to x it. If they take away my keys, I’ll just call a locksmith to make new ones.”
With proper planning, families can have successful conversations with their senior family members — even on difficult topics such as the driving decision. Asking a person to stop driving can be a delicate and highly emotional matter. Family members delay having these conversations mainly because they want to avoid conflict and hurt feelings. Some adult children don’t want to challenge a parent or already may be overloaded with other responsibilities.
In the perfect world, our loved seniors will have read the March Senior Crossroads article, recognized themselves in the article and hung up their car keys voluntarily. The reality is — most people won’t recognize themselves as having impaired driving abilities and will continue to drive at a great risk to everyone, including themselves.
If a relative’s driving safety has been on family members’ minds, it is time to talk about it and lay the foundation — be•fore driving becomes a problem. Maybe you’ve noticed that your loved one has changed social activities or shopping to locations closer to home. He or she might give reasons not to visit if it means driving in the dark or on a busy freeway. Personalities and families vary, but it’s usually better to have frequent, short conversations than a long, one-time conversation. Changes in medications and health status are good times for starting this discussion.
Sometimes families wait until an accident or traffic violation happens, but then the driver may dismiss the incident as a common occurrence not related to his or her abilities.
If safety is a pressing concern, discussions need to be more direct and specific and conducted in a calm, reason•able and informative tone.
It’s important for family members to know that many, if not most, individuals with dementia may not even re•call a previous conversation about driving and act as if it’s the first time the topic is being raised.
Don’t put it off ! By start•ing the discussion with the first warning signs of unsafe driving there will be more options available and more chances for the senior to make decisions and stay in control.
Start by asking questions, not by making demands. Questions are just questions, not accusations, and can help your loved ones feel like they still have some control.
A few examples of conversation starters are: “I’ve noticed that you’ve changed some of your driving habits.” “Does traffic make you nervous?” “Are you having a harder time seeing and driv•ing at night?” “Are you ever frightened when you drive?” “Have you had any close calls recently?”
Maybe your family member would benefit from taking a driver refresher course sponsored by AARP or an•other organization. There might even be an insurance discount for attending. It could help your loved one gain new knowledge, tips and the confidence to continue driving, but with limitations. Or it could be the eye-opener that leads to hanging up the car keys.
Either way, it will give your family member the opportunity to be a part of the conversation instead of the topic of conversation.
Utilizing outside help
Still having concerns? Your senior family member still dismissing those concerns and insisting on driving? Sometimes involving your loved one’s health care professional during a regular office visit may be beneficial. Professionals will be more likely to discuss driving issues with a patient if a family member has privately shared observations of driving behavior. This input can help because physicians do not have tests to determine definitively when a person in the early stages of dementia should not drive. And some doctors may hesitate to bring up a topic as emotionally charged as not driving for fear of jeopardizing their relationship with a patient.
When a physician is con•cerned about someone’s driving safety, writing a prescription to stop driving may give added weight.
Comprehensive driving evaluations also can be performed by occupational therapists with specialized driver evaluation training. This may include a clinical evaluation — which involves a variety of cognitive, visual and physical assessments — an on-the-road test and either oral or written feedback on the results of the evaluation. Such evaluations may provide families with additional input and support.
If all else fails, and as a last resort, you may have to consider going to the Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL), which has a process for reviewing drivers reported as unsafe.
The DOL does not take action based on age alone but will consider each concern individually. They may require the senior to retake the road or written test or possibly require a medical or vision exam.
Based on the results, the DOL may cancel the person’s license. But, on the downside, in our state these reports are not confidential, and your parent may find out who made the report.
While that may have an impact on your decision, the consequences of not acting could be even more severe.
Once your concerns are out on the table, there are several steps that families can take together short of taking the keys. Children, caregivers and friends should play a vital role in helping older drivers maintain independence while driving less and more safely. And independence, not driving, is really what it is all about.
Be ready with information to help allow them to keep their social activities and daily routines without getting behind the wheel of a car. Information on carpools, bus and paratransit routes, volunteer drivers and taxis will help them to enjoy those outings and social functions that keep them active and feeling good.
The main goal is not to alter your loved one’s lifestyle too dramatically to the point where he or she feels isolated. Many senior service organizations have information and resources that can assist you in locating transportation alternatives.
Remember, it is important to get the older driver involved in exploring these is•sues through open and frank conversations. This builds a sense of personal control and lays the groundwork for responsible decisions.
For more information and resource assistance, e-mail Pam Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 683-7047. Scott is the community relations director for Discovery Memory Care in Sequim.
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