Is Your Older Parent Still a Safe Driver?

Sooner or later, many of us are going to have to have “the talk” with our parents about when it’s time for them to hang up the keys for good and stop driving.

Knowing when and how to broach the subject can help determine how successful the talk is, according to Wendi Sargent, occupational therapist at ProMedica Flower Hospital.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is most often the medical condition that prompts such a conversation, Sargent says, noting that the stage of the condition will help determine when the decision to stop driving should be made.

“As a child looking at their parent, they’re looking at ‘Even though they forget things, can they problem solve to compensate for that?’” she says. “Can they still make up for that in other ways and still function safely? Are they remembering to take their medicine? If the answer is no and they’re getting lost or putting their keys in the refrigerator or in the cupboard and not really aware, that’s one of the biggest warning signs—when they can no longer adjust to their memory loss.”

Warning Signs

There are many signs that indicate it may be time for Mom or Dad to stop driving, Sargent says. These include:

  • Relying on a spouse to provide directions to familiar places
  • Needing guidance on when to turn on blinker or switch lanes
  • Other drivers regularly honking their horn at them
  • Driving too slow or being unable to read entire signs

The aging process on its own isn’t normally a driving force in a senior being forced off the road, Sargent says.

“With aging itself, the only risk factor is we’re more brittle and your risk of injury to yourself as you become over the age of 70 or 65 even increases significantly,” she says. “But dementia and Alzheimer’s, along with Parkinson’s disease mostly affect older people—those three things are the biggest diagnoses we see on people that eventually lose their ability to drive. Those medical conditions may affect judgment, memory, vision and if we get lost,” she adds.

How and When to Act

How Mom or Dad responds to the suggestion they stop sitting behind the wheel can be a mixed bag, Sargent says.

“It depends on the personality of the patient,” she says, explaining that some parents trust their children’s judgment on whether they pose a danger to themselves and others on the road, while others can become agitated at the suggestion, even requiring a physician and the state to get involved on the matter.

It’s best to act earlier rather than later when dealing with a parent experiencing dementia or Alzheimer’s, she says. “The more the disease process progresses, the more combative, the less they see their deficits,” she says, recommending that children begin discussing the matter with their parent before it’s actually time to hang up the keys.

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Sargent recommends children ride along with their parent in order to be able to point out some of the concerns they have on their driving behavior.

A list of factors to consider on the senior driving subject is available through publications developed by The Hartford. There, the insurance company walks family members through the process of talking with parents about their driving habits, even offering step-by-step suggestions on what to discuss.

ProMedica Total Rehab also offers driving evaluations with a simulator, on-the-road driving test, medical history review and other screenings to help identify problem areas and offer recommendations that may help individuals maintain their independence with driving. Click here to download the Road to Independent Driving brochure and learn more about the program.