When Should Seniors Put the Brakes on Their Own Driving?

Getting someone to agree to put the brakes on their own driving can be a challenge, even for the experts

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There are more than 48 million drivers over the age of 65 on the roads. Most are fine and fit to drive. But often, when families gather for the holidays, people notice changes in loved ones that make them really concerned. Maybe they don’t want the grandkids on the road with the grandparents anymore. So, what can you do about these safety concerns?

We begin with a bit of practical advice from Elizabeth Dugan, author of “The Driving Dilemma” and associate professor of gerontology at UMass Boston.

“One thing that can be helpful is to walk around the vehicle and look for dents and scrapes.”

She did it for a loved one in her own family.

“For us, this was something that showed us that there was an objective failure in driving.”

But getting someone to agree to put the brakes on their own driving can be a challenge, even for the experts. Dugan went through the difficult decision with her mother.

“When it became clear that she was no longer safe to drive, she fought it for every ounce of her being because she was fighting to maintain her independence and her own way of life and her autonomy,” Dugan said.

“The older driving population is actually the fastest growing population in our country,” said Mark Schieldrop, spokesman for AAA Northeast.

“On average, an adult in the United States will outlive their ability to drive by seven to ten years,” said Kerrigan. “We’re all facing the prospect of having to retire from driving before the end of our lives because we're living so much longer.

Medical assessments can help

“When this light turns red, I want you to hit that brake pedal as fast as you can.” Debra Kerrigan, a senior occupational therapist at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, said as she began a medical driving assessment demo for our cameras. She is a founder of the Drive Safe Program.

“It is a comprehensive evaluation of a person's capacity to drive. We're looking at a person's physical abilities, including their coordination, their reaction time. We're looking at their visual abilities. We're looking at their ability to pay attention and to remember,” Kerrigan said. Then, “we'll have them go on and do an on-road assessment.”

The hospital evaluation costs more than $200. The on-road assessment is set by the driving school, and they are already booked through April. Most people won’t have these evaluations. Experts say it’s best to start conversations about driver retirement before a crisis. And be gentle.

How to talk to a loved one about retiring from driving

“If you were to come in and talk to your mom or your dad and just say, I don't think you should drive anymore and take away the keys, lots of bad things can happen. There can be anger, there can be resentment. There can be depression and isolation,” said Kerrigan. “But if you come in as their partner, then you can work together.”

Dugan, whose book outlines potential scripts for these conversations, said “don't frame it as I want your keys, but how will you know when you're no longer fit to drive? Do you want to go get a medical assessment? Do you want to do retraining? Do you want to fund a transportation account so that you can buy rides instead of paying for your car?”

Although every family dynamic is different, Kerrigan suggests: “Don’t have the big family meeting, getting all the siblings together, you know, and make it feel like a big bully session.”

She recommends having a spokesperson -- one person - to talk about concerns or strategies. And expect it to be a series of smaller conversations over time.

“Be a partner with them. Be compassionate. Say, ‘I’m a little concerned about this, and I’m wondering, have you thought about what you're going to do when you can no longer drive?’ Offer solutions.”

“You may have this most beautiful family conversation. You express love across the generations. You work out a plan, resolve that you know the car is going to go away, said Dugan. Then “in the crunch of someone needing to get somewhere, the person reverts to driving and all that wonderful discussion has fallen by the wayside. So fasten your seatbelt and gear up for ongoing dialogue and detours.

Steps to take before turning over the keys

Modify the car

There are many resources available to make automobiles more user-friendly to older drivers. As Dugan explains, “if someone has a stiff neck and can't turn, you can add extra mirrors to the vehicle. If someone has difficulty reaching the pedals and the seat can be adjusted to make it fit, you can get pedal extenders. So there's lots of gadgets that can go in the car to help keep someone driving safely. So just because someone has a concern, it may not be the end of the road.”

There are other ways to slowly ease out of driving.

Modify when you drive

“Most older drivers are safe drivers and many older drivers are able to continue driving for a very long time because they modify their driving.”

Kerrigan explained they do that by “limiting their driving to daytime and they're not driving at night anymore. They may limit their driving to familiar destinations and routes. They may limit their driving to non-congested times of day. And by doing that, they prolong their driving lifetime.”

If either of these two things happen, it's time to take the keys

“The two warning signs for stopping driving immediately would be stopping for no reason in traffic and confusing the brake and the gas pedals. If either of those happened even once, we would advise that the older driver stop driving and get a further evaluation,” says Kerrigan.

These scenarios are in addition to medical conditions that would prevent a person’s ability to drive.

Being mobile without driving

“Where someone lives, what state they're in, what community they're in, what their resources are, all of that can impact the person's ability to maintain the type of life they'd like to,” said Dugan.

“The end of their driving career isn't the end of their ability to be mobile,” AAA Northeast’s Schieldrop.

Their website (linked below) has resources which, “allow you to plan your driving retirement, find out what your mobility options are depending on the community you live in. You may have access to transportation resources. So even if you do have to give up the keys, you still can get around.”

"In Massachusetts, a lot of the services are community specific. So generally, the best place to go to find that information is the local Council on Aging or Senior Center," Kerrigan said.

And who knows… maybe by the time you need to hand in your keys, technology will come to the rescue.

"Some of the safety systems that we see now can really do a lot to reduce crashes and give older folks another layer of protection," Schieldrop said.

The bottom line: your are not alone on this journey. It can be a challenge. But the resources below can be a big help.


Newton-Wellesley Hospital Drive Safe Program

The Hartford on family conversations with older drivers

AAA on Senior Driving

The Driving Dilemma: The Complete Resource Guide for Older Drivers and Their Families by Elizabeth Duga, Ph.D

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