Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: Aiding Elderly Drivers

When is it time to ask for your parents' car keys, and how do you do it?

January 26, 2010, 4:25 PM

Jan. 27, 2010— -- Driving is a milestone of freedom in our teen years, but it can become a safety concern when we're older.

In the first installment of "Good Morning America's" series on tackling tough topics with aging parents called "Mom and Dad, We Need To Talk," "GMA" family and life contributor Lee Woodruff looks at the complicated issue of elder driving.

When is it time to ask for your parent's car keys? And how do you do it?

Woodruff has recently faced this question in her own family and has spoken extensively with the AARP on the best ways to handle it. She says you need the support of your entire family and should always approach the topic with a great deal of understanding. In Woodruff's case, her family spoke to her father before his driving became an issue, which is one of the top recommendations of the AARP.

Experts at the AARP say that the first step is changing the way we talk about the issue. You shouldn't tell your parents, "It's time to give up the keys" or talk about "taking" the keys away. Instead, use the phrase "hanging up the keys." It's a subtle difference, but "hanging up" makes it their choice; "taking away" makes it someone else's.

Many people don't spend a lot of time in the passenger seat while their aging parents drive, which is the best way to gauge their competency. Other clues include if your parents often talk about "close calls" or getting lost, or if you notice dents or dings on their car.

AARP's 10 Major Warning Signs

CLICK HERE for more tips from the AARP Driver Safety Program.

CLICK HERE for worksheets to help you calculate transportation alternatives and costs for elderly drivers.

CLICK HERE for more resources on tackling difficult issues with your aging parents, including driving, finances, family and caregiving.

All in the Family

Woodruff stresses that every family is different but, she says, it often helps to enlist the entire family to have the talk, especially the spouse of the parent in question, if possible. According to a survey by the Hartford Financial Services Group and the MIT AgeLab, 50 percent of married drivers older than 50 prefer to hear about driving concerns first from their spouses. Doctors were a close second, followed by adult children.

Safety First

As for the conversation itself, experts say, you should approach it from a safety and health perspective, rather than age.

For example, you can say something like, "Does your eyeglass prescription make it tougher to see when you're driving?" or "Does your doctor think your medication will have an effect on your driving?"

You can also talk about it in terms of driving itself -- "driving isn't what it used to be" -- focused on the way others drive or difficult road conditions.

If one of their friends has stopped driving, you could also ask, "I hear that Mr. Smith gave up driving. Do you think your driving ability has changed?" or ask about an older family member and when they stopped driving.

Suggest Limits

You can also suggest that your parent puts limits on his or her driving, rather than stopping completely. Ask your parent if he or she might be more comfortable not driving at night, or only in good weather, or just locally and not on highways. These strategies can help you ease them into the idea of hanging up the keys.

Consult a Doctor

If your parent is still unwilling to discuss the matter, you can turn to their doctor; making it a medical issue and not an age issue. This generation respects the physician's voice and will often take their advice. The Hartford Financial and MIT AgeLab survey found that outside of family members, older drivers also value the opinion of doctors, and some doctors might be able to tell if your parent's visual and cognitive skills and reflexes have declined.

Elder Drivers: How to Have the Talk

Present Alternativesstate for not wanting to hang up the keys is independence. When you're going to have this conversation, make sure you have some alternatives in mind. Find out if your community has good public transportation that goes where they want to go or an elder organization that offers transportation.

Some will say they can't afford to give up the car and take taxis. Do the math for them because that might not be true. If they don't have to make car and insurance payments, pay for gas and upkeep, they might find that there's a tidy sum available for alternate transportation.

CLICK HERE for work sheets to help you assess transportation alternatives and to determine their transportation expenses.

Suggest They Take a Driver-Safety Class or Evaluation

The AARP offers information about driver-safety classes, and a doctor might recommend that your parent undergo an assessment of driving skills, including a road test. Woodruff's father agreed to undergo a driving-skills evaluation and when the results surprised him, he decided to give up driving.

CLICK HERE for more information from the AARP's Driver Safety Program.

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