Q: My dad, who is 82, lives in Southern California and is still driving. My family worries about whether it is safe. Any suggestions for getting him to stop? S.M., Walnut Creek
A: Several years ago, a friend and I were visiting his 85-year-old father in a retirement community in Florida. My friend asked if he could borrow his father’s car for the evening, to which his father replied “Yes, of course, but be careful. This is Florida and there are people in their 90s who are still driving!”
How old someone is doesn’t necessarily determine their driving ability, but the reality is that stopping driving is inevitable for many older drivers; in fact, the average man will have six years without the ability to drive and the average woman 10 years.
Figuring out when or if to stop driving is one of the most difficult issues facing older adults. Driving, simply put, represents independence. It doesn’t just serve a practical purpose, but also contributes to the ability to socialize. Take that away and for many of us, especially older adults, life becomes more difficult, and feelings of dependence and isolation increase.
The first question to answer is, how do you know that it is no longer safe for your father to drive? Sometimes it can be obvious, but it may be helpful to do an assessment with your dad. The AAA (www.seniordriving.aaa.com), AARP (www.aarp.org), and the American Medical Association (www.ama-assn.org) all have good resources to help you and your dad figure out if there are problems and pinpoint what they are.
It is also important to note that stopping driving is not the only option as someone ages. Sometimes, modifying driving can reduce the risks, but still allow some level of independence. Many older adults naturally make modifications to their driving without any intervention. No longer driving at night, on freeways, or long distances are the most common ones. Here in the Bay Area, some older adults limit their driving to going to the BART station nearest their house, then using public transportation to get to their destination.
If you can, talk with your loved one about driving before there is a problem — and make sure you choose the right person to initiate the conversation. Research shows that most married drivers want to hear from their spouses, followed closely by their doctors, and last by adult children. Older adults who are living alone generally prefer to first hear from doctors. And it is a good idea to have the conversation one-on-one rather than involve the whole family.
If you are the designated person to speak with your dad, it is important to have a plan for the conversation. Be prepared to answer questions such as, “How will I get where I need to if I stop driving?” and “Why do you think it is not safe for me to drive?” Research transportation options or set up a schedule for you, friends or neighbors to transport your dad. Three good resources for learning about transportation options are www.unitedweride.gov, www.eldercare.gov, and www.seniortransportation.easterseals.com. You may also want to look into things like driving classes or a car evaluation. AARP offers driving classes that may qualify your dad for an insurance discount — that alone could be a big selling point. In California, you can get a free car assessment through CarFit (www.car-fit.org), which assesses how well a senior’s vehicle “fits” them.
Once the plan is in place, you are ready to start the conversation. It may be obvious, but it’s worth repeating: be patient and don’t be put off by initial negative reactions! It may take several conversations (and unfortunately this seems to be especially true with dads). Keep in mind that the idea of stopping driving will bring up lots of feelings. Address your dad’s concerns, be empathetic, and focus on the facts, not his age. It can be helpful to have some specific examples of driving behavior you have seen — not presented in a way that will make your dad defensive but in a way that illustrates what you are concerned about. You can also discuss the cost of the car and the consequences of having an accident — both for him and other drivers on the road.
Doctors are often a good option if your father is resistant to speaking with you. In California, physicians are required to report all patients diagnosed with a disorder that could impair their ability to operate a motor vehicle. If you feel like you are having particular trouble getting through to him, it might be helpful to bring in an outside person, like a professional geriatric social worker (available through agencies like JFCS/East Bay), who can help you both work through the emotional and logistical issues around driving.
Try different approaches and be prepared to have the conversation many times. The good news is that more than half of older drivers do follow suggestions about their own driving.
However, if you are concerned about your dad’s driving because of dementia, then you will have to take a very different approach. With dementia that is progressive, older drivers may lack the insight, cognitive ability and memory capacity necessary to drive safely. This is clearly a significant safety issue. As a last resort, you can report your concerns to the DMV by completing a “Request for Driver Reexamination.” While you cannot make an anonymous report, you can ask the DMV to keep your name confidential. The DMV will then evaluate the driver’s ability to drive safely. For more information about how to handle an older adult driver with dementia, contact Family Caregiver Alliance (www.caregiver.org) or the Alzheimer’s Association (www.alz.org).
While talking through these issues with your dad may be difficult, the results can be very worthwhile if you go about it in a thoughtful and clear way. To paraphrase former Major League baseball player and manager Tommy Lasorda, driving is like baseball — it’s the one who gets home safely that counts. And, I would add, doesn’t hurt anyone in the process of getting there. Make sure your dad understands above all that your primary concern is his safety and that of the people around him. n
Rob Tufel, MSW, MPH, is director of Adult Services at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay. His columns appear regularly in j.’s Seniors supplements. Have any questions about your aging parents? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (510) 558-7800 ext. 352.