It’s probably one of the most important yet dreaded conversations you can have with an aging parent, and it often begins something like this: “You should NOT be driving.” Not surprisingly, the conversation usually goes downhill from there. In this column, I’ll outline some information and suggestions to help you address this issue for a more positive outcome.
Many of us continue to be good, safe drivers as we age. AARP offers an excellent class to help keep seniors safe on the road. However, let’s be honest: normal changes to eyesight, hearing, range of motion and reflexes can negatively affect driving skills. For example, as we get older, we need more light to see things. Glare from the sun, oncoming headlights, or other street lights may trouble older drivers more than before. Peripheral vision may also narrow. Add cataracts, macular degeneration or glaucoma, not to mention arthritis, diabetes, Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases, a stroke, sleep disorders or Alzheimer’s disease and you’ve just gone from unsafe to downright dangerous behind the wheel.
Pointing out such disturbing facts can be most helpful when you’re also armed with facts about reasonable alternatives to driving. Nobody would choose to be a danger behind the wheel if they knew about (and were accepting of) safe and affordable alternatives. Money saved on gasoline, insurance premiums, car maintenance and repairs (not to mention medical bills and lawsuits) can go a long way to help fund alternatives like public transportation, cabs, a private chauffeur or retirement community living. Some elders use their cars only to go to the grocery store, bank and restaurants, and to attend religious services. Many grocery stores and restaurants will deliver for a small fee. Houses of worship may have programs to aid seniors, such as the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona grants to three local synagogues for taxi transportation for Jewish seniors (see azjewishpost.com/2010/jfsa-grants-support-additional-senior-programs/). Reviewing the alternatives with your parent can help them realize they can still be independent and in control, without putting lives at risk.
Waiting for third-party authorities to intervene may work in other states, but in Arizona you could be in for a long wait. Our “extended” driver’s license does not expire until age 65. The photo and vision screening only need to be updated every 12 years. Drivers ages 60 and over receive a five-year license. A lot can change in five years.
Is it any wonder Arizona roads are filled with so many drivers who shouldn’t be behind the wheel?
The law requires drivers to report to the DMV any condition that may affect their ability to drive safely. If someone is involved in an accident and it’s found that his or her health condition was a contributing factor, they may be prosecuted and their insurance may be void. Think about that.
The evidence in favor of older drivers giving up their keys is not hard to find when you begin to look. So why do so many elders insist on driving anyway? It’s not only because of habit. To them it may be pure principle. Driving a car, just like owning a home, symbolizes individual freedom and the American dream. The thought of giving up either is difficult indeed. You can empathize. Nobody willingly gives up their independence. The sooner people realize they can still be independent without these symbols, the happier they will be.
Having worked in retirement community settings for the better part of 25 years, I can tell you older people truly thrive when they are in control of their own destiny. Many safe drivers soon give up their cars after moving to a retirement community because they realize they are more comfortable leaving the driving to someone else. They can go more places and they do. They can still be in control without putting their own and other lives at risk.
Age is the usher to many natural changes. Such changes should be anticipated and accepted, rather than denied and fought. Accepting the new reality is part of a healthy grieving process when it comes to overcoming any type of loss, whether it’s the loss of a spouse, a job, or the ability to see or hear or drive. Once the new reality is honestly acknowledged and accepted, the individual usually experiences a euphoric new sense of freedom to reinvest in life.
Families can know all of this and still find conversations and decisions difficult. That’s natural. A trusted third party such as a doctor, accountant, attorney, elder care professional or family friend can often diffuse tension and help ease transitions.
Fran Donnellan has served in leadership roles for 25 years at select Arizona retirement communities. She is a past member of the American College of Health Care Administrators and a former/founding member of the board for the CareGiver Training Institute. She earned her bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Missouri and studied geriatrics at Arizona State University. She currently serves as executive director for The Fountains at La Cholla in northwest Tucson.