Let’s take a moment to go down memory lane and think about when we got our first car. Do you remember that exhilarating feeling of freedom? The windows rolled down, the wind in our hair and the radio turned up, as we drove ourselves anywhere our hearts desired. There was no more relying on others. Suddenly, it didn’t matter where we went. It was exciting to just drive to the grocery store or to work. Why? Because it was independence. Imagine after all these years, getting that part of your independence taken away from you. You can no longer just get in your car and go wherever you would like.

When an older adult is told they have to give up driving, it is no surprise that it is usually met with great resistance, anger and denial. If it has come to this point, the older adult has probably experienced other aspects of loss of independence, so this can feel like quite the debilitating blow to their already dwindling freedom. Consequently, addressing this sensitive matter with your aging loved one can be overwhelmingly difficult. You are not alone in feeling this way.According to a poll done by Caring.com and the National Safety Council, 36% of adult children said that talking to their adult parents about the need to stop driving would be harder than discussing funeral plans or selling the family home. So how do you know if it is time to have the conversation with your loved one about surrendering the car keys?

The following are some warning signs to look for:

  • Trouble judging the distance between their car and other cars or structures
  • Inconsistent Acceleration (erratic control of speeds)
  • Confusion between the gas and brake pedals
  • Becoming lost, even in familiar places
  • Forgetting to use the mirrors or checking their blind spots
  • Not knowing how to yield or merge appropriately
  • Frequent “close calls” in which accidents almost occur
  • Underestimating the speeds of oncoming cars
  • Having road rage, or causing others to honk
  • Declining invitations to social events, especially if they are in the evenings. It may be their way of recognizing their limitations.
  • They appear tense or exhausted after driving. It might be an indication they are starting to have some anxiety about driving.

In order to assess their actual driving, join them on a few trips to appointments, grocery store, drug store, etc. Then take note of the things you observed. It will be helpful to have examples that you can mention, when it does come time to have a discussion.

Health factors should also be taken into account and assessed. The couple obvious factors that can hinder driving capabilities are difficulty with hearing or seeing. The older adult might not hear horns, or an emergency vehicle coming, to pull to the side of the road. They may have a hard time seeing various road signs or pedestrians in the distance. Any weakness or joint problems in the legs can make it hard to switch between the gas and brake pedal. Additionally, older adults may have unreliable reaction time or range of motion issues. Driving can be unpredictable and situations do arise that require quick decisions and movements. One other aspect to take into consideration is your loved one’s medications, and if they can impact their driving ability. Medication side effects such as blurred vision, drowsiness or cloudy thinking, can all definitely create risk factors when driving. It is crucial that medications are reassessed periodically. Review the side effects of the medications, and check to see if there are warnings to avoid driving while on the medication. It is important to note that side effects can develop at any time, no matter how long they are on a particular medication.

If you still find yourself unsure about what to do, there are Certified Drive Rehabilitation Specialists (CDRS) who work with all ages and abilities, to evaluate and to offer training. They can assess the situation to see if your loved one has the potential to become a safer driver. If they conclude there is potential, they will develop strategies and provide training sessions. There are usually specialists and or driver rehabilitation programs available in most metropolitan areas, including Denver. Contact your local Department of Motor Vehicles for more information.

How to Have the Conversation

If you have concluded that your loved one should stop driving, then it is time to sit down and get your thoughts down on paper. This will help you get a better idea of what you are going to say. I would not necessarily come to the conversation with your notes, as that could be off-putting. When you finally sit down one-on-one with your loved one, be mindful not to come across in a contentious way, or with an accusatory tone, but rather with a conversational tone. You might open with a question, such as, “How are you feeling with driving these days?” They will probably defend themselves and give many reasons why they cannot stop driving. This is your time to listen to them and not offer up “quick solutions.” Then state some of your concerns and emphasize that you will work together to find the right solution. Reassure your loved one that you will do all that you can for them to maintain a very similar lifestyle. Be prepared for them to most likely get indignant at some point during the conversation. However, remember you would not be happy either, if you had to surrender your car keys. If things continue to escalate, take a break and give your loved one time to think and process it all, instead of just abruptly taking their keys away. After a couple of days, revisit the conversation. You may need to do this a couple times, as it gives your loved one some time to get more used to the idea. They may never admit it, but deep down, they probably know it is the right thing.

If you are not having success with your older loved one in your conversations and they are refusing to give up driving, there are a couple of other possibilities. The first option is contacting your loved one’s physician to voice your concerns and get their feedback. Colorado physicians are encouraged, but not required to report to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) patients’ conditions that may affect their ability to drive. Ultimately, it will be up to the physician if they even want to get involved, but it is worth looking into. The second option is you can file an unsafe driver report to the DMV. Hopefully it does not get to this point, but it is good to know there are other courses of action you can take if you are not getting through to your loved one.

How to you get your loved one to all the places they need to go, especially when you are not always available. You do not need more added to your already full plate. Here are some examples of alternative means of transportation:

  • Senior ride programs through Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG)
  • Uber or Lyft
  • Arrange an ongoing ride schedule with family and friends
  • Hire a private car service for a few hours a week
  • Get rides from volunteer drivers through local organizations

These conversations are never easy. You may feel like the “bad guy” all the time, but rest in the fact that you were proactive and made the right decision. Think about how awful you would have felt if something happened to your loved one or to someone else while they were driving. Or maybe an incident has happened, but that does not mean you should beat yourself up over it. It can be tricky to know the right timing. Watching someone you love begin to deteriorate is a very tough thing. Even though you knew all these types of situations would come at some point, it does not make it any easier. If you would like more guidance or resources on this issue, please do not hesitate to contact Denver Senior Care. You are not alone in this! They would be happy to work with you to devise a plan that will lead towards a successful and productive outcome for you and your loved one.