When Betsy’s mom was 89 years old, she totaled her car in a wreck that left her completely unhurt. We breathed a huge sigh of relief, primarily because she wasn’t injured, but also because we thought she would finally stop driving. It wasn’t that she was a dangerous driver, but there had been a few concerning incidents that worried Betsy that one day something even worse might happen and someone else might get hurt.
Driving is a very personal privilege to all licensed drivers, and seniors are no exception to this rule. As a member of Virginia’s General Assembly, I am occasionally asked if laws should be passed that would establish that people of a specified advanced age must surrender their driver’s license and their car keys. I feel that this would be a huge mistake, and disrespectful to seniors whose experience in all things related to life, including driving, should be valued and honored. The decision of whether or not someone should hold driving privileges is as unique as each person and cannot be classified by age alone. In the case of my mother-in-law, Betsy’s brother understood how vital driving was to his mother, so he took her the next day and bought another car. For Sarah, this was the right thing to do, and she continued to drive until she was 93.
In the role of Family Caregiver, you may worry every time your aging loved one gets behind the wheel. If you are not always able to go along for the ride in the car, you might not know what happens out there to your older driver, but there are a few things you can do to observe and assess the situation.
- Periodically you should walk around the car and make a note of any damage. Take pictures on your phone to chronicle the dents, dings, and scrapes. That way you will be more likely to notice when new ones appear and ask casually how the scratch happened.
- Ride along occasionally instead of driving when you go together in the car. Try not to coach the driving unless you feel endangered; instead, sit back and casually observe whether your loved one stays in their lane, whether they can turn their head to look behind them or to the right or left. Be sure they observe traffic lights, stop signs and speed limits. Make mental notes if something concerns you.
- Ask your loved one if they ever feel nervous or confused when driving, but remember to use an open-ended question like, “Tell me about a time when you were driving and felt nervous,” or you might even say, “Mom, these days drivers go so fast! I worry they might run someone off the road!” Wait for her response; she might give you lots of insights!
- Check cognitive abilities by asking for guidance when driving to a familiar place like the doctor’s office or church. Let your dad tell you where to turn to go the best route. It will make him feel good about his ability if he can do this, but if he can’t, reassure him that you are confident you can figure it out with his help. Give him prompts to help him feel successful in the endeavor.
Today’s new cars have many built-in features to make them safer for older drivers, and fatalities among older driver accidents have declined in recent years. In addition to better airbags and integrated crumple zones, technology like backup cameras, blind-spot warnings, bird’s eye view and self-parking features can help the savvy older driver who learns how to take advantage of these new features. Lane warnings, smart cruise control, and accident-avoidance braking also make driving safer for a driver whose response time might be slower with advanced age.
The bottom line on all of this is the importance of careful observation and respectful communication. When a Family Caregiver facilitates conversations about driving experiences and offers support and encouragement, in most cases, the senior will embrace the right time to lay down the keys. Your compassionate support and encouragement can make them feel much more comfortable when it is time to become a passenger rather than the driver.