“He doesn’t drive at night, he just drives to the doctor and to church”.
Imagine the justifications people can invent to allow dangerous aging parents to stay behind the wheel. These are statements from family members whose elder is no longer safe to drive, but they’re still driving. No one has the guts to ask Dad or Mom to stop. Since most accidents happen within 3 miles of home, the “only to church” or “only to the store” is not safer than anywhere else.
The National Safety Council publishes a journal called Family Safety and Health, and in its Fall, 2012 issue, an article, “Time to Hand Over the Keys” appears. I was interviewed for the article. As a former personal injury lawyer, I represented hundreds of victims of car accidents, some caused by older drivers who never should have been on the road. That dangerous driver could be your dad, your grandma or your aunt. The next generation needs to see the problem and face the fear about confronting it.
Research indicates that most people, when approached respectfully, will voluntarily give up driving. However, “ most people” does not include the very stubborn, those in denial, and those elders with the kind of cognitive impairment that prevents them from actually understanding how impaired they are. With those folks, their families desperately need a strategy.
Here’s a sampling of parts from the strategy I advocate that you use.
First, recognize the problem. A car is a lethal weapon whether your elder is driving it a block from home or across the city. It is not a safer weapon because your elder is closer to home. That’s a fanatasy. Give it up. I met an 84 year old who was behind the wheel when he accidentally hit and killed his best friend in the driveway of his own apartment building.
Next, be honest and respectful and talk to your aging loved one about his or her driving. If you’ve see grandma careen across the street cutting off other cars, unaware of their presence, it’s time to gently ask her to give up the keys. Try a one-on -one conversation first.
Next, add allies to your approach if the one-on-one is not successful. Bring in a trusted friend, other family, or anyone Dad likes best. Bring up the subject kindly and with acknowledgement that giving up driving is huge and that it means losing independence. Use an outside professional if this doesn’t work.
Make alternative transportation arrangements. If your elder lives in an urban area, many resources may be available for elders, from community vans to carpools from senior centers. Beware of putting cognitively impaired elders on buses. They may be confused and get lost. Rural dwellers must usually rely on family and friends to transport them. The burden on adult children may stop them from facing the issue of a parent’s dangerous driving.
If the elder is too dangerous to continue driving, get rid of the car if you can. Sometimes a caregiver can do the driving and the aging person keeps the car. If there is no caregiver or someone else’s car is used to transport, the elder’s car is a sad reminder and a temptation you don’t want kept in the driveway. It’s too easy for Dad to get a duplicate set of keys made.
Use the law as a last resort. The primary care doctor may be of help if willing to report the danger or need for retesting to the department of motor vehicles. Some states allow you to report a dangerous driver and ask for license retesting anonymously. The courts can be used to protect elders who are a danger to themselves or others. Guardianship can be used in extreme cases to give family permission to take the car away.
Some older drivers are fine, like my mother in law, Alice, 90. She limits her driving to daytime. She is still quite sharp, has a great memory and sense of direction and pays attention to what is on the road. I wouldn’t classify her as dangerous, but she’s in the minority at her age.
Asking an aging loved one to give up driving takes courage. It can draw extreme resistance, anger and refusal. Facing that possibility requires a plan and perhaps a family conference before approaching a particularly difficult elder. I urge you to find your courage if your elder is scaring you when he or she gets behind the wheel. Sometimes elders know it’s time and will give up driving willingly when asked. You might be lucky. In any event, it’s time to take your chances if this article reminds you of anyone close to you.
By Carolyn Rosenblatt, Forbes Contributor