It’s one of the more difficult conversations we can have with a parent or grandparent: Their driving skills have declined to the point where you know they’re a risk to themselves or others. When confronted, some seniors hand over the keys willingly. Some don’t. Their may not have self-awareness or are in denial about their decline — they may insist they’re doing fine.
Yet the trouble signs are there: They are running stop signs, banging up fenders, hitting the sides of the garage, getting lost on roads they know, or mixing up the gas and brake pedals. If this goes on, someone could get hurt.
Cars represent freedom. The potential loss of that is understandably scary. My grandfather, for example, stubbornly refused to give up his keys when asked — until one day he handed them over willingly and without saying a word; something had happened on the highway that scared him, he wouldn’t say what. Even without the keys, though, he was comforted by having the car parked outside. It was a symbol of freedom just sitting there.
As the Baby Boomer generation ages, the ranks of older drivers are growing fast. Kaiser Health News reports:
“Nearly 50 million people 65 and older held driver’s licenses in 2021, a 38% increase from 2012, according to data compiled by the American Automobile Association. Almost 19 million were 75 or older, a rise of 31%. During this period, motor vehicle deaths for people 65 and older increased 34%, reaching 7,489 in 2021. The number of seniors injured in vehicle crashes that year exceeded 266,000.”
How old is too old to drive? AARP says the average age for seniors to give up driving is 75, but that surely is a moving target as the Baby Boomer wave ages in better health and 75 becomes “the new” 55 or 65. We all know people who drive safely beyond 75. Vision impairment may be the thing that most risks older Americans losing their license.
For the most part, older drivers are safer drivers, using caution behind the wheel and relying on decades of experience. They wear their seatbelts, they don’t speed, and they adapt to their changing skillset by avoiding big highways and not driving at night. Even so, it’s a good idea for seniors to get an old age driving assessment — and brush up their skills — by taking refresher drivers-ed courses offered by AAA, AARP or agencies or driving schools in your area. Lists of senior driver-education resources are available online. Taking these classes can also qualify a senior for an insurance discount.
While several states require license renewals and vision tests at shorter intervals as we age, only two states — Illinois and New Hampshire — require all renewing license holders age 75 and older to re-take a road test. But if you question your loved one’s driving, the DMV does have a role to play. More on that in a moment.
So what to do when you have to do something?
If your loved one should no longer drive, the right approach might differ depending on what you think will be most effective:
— Call a family meeting, an intervention. Putting up a unified front might be helpful and takes the heat off of you as an individual.
— Reassure them they’ll still be able to go places. Do the legwork to line up the details on senior shuttles or other forms of transportation in your community. Help them try out the options. If someone in the family has the wherewithal to drive them places on demand, even better.
— Have your senior’s doctor weigh in. That was helpful in convincing my own mother that her driving days were over. He wrote it out, and we’d show his instruction to her from time to time when she’d forgotten. Seniors trust their doctors.
— Turn them in to the DMV. If the state gets a report of an unfit driver, it will call them in for testing. You can do this anonymously, though your senior is likely going to figure out it was you. Perhaps not, if dementia is a factor.
— Tell a white lie. Regarding seniors with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, this medical journal study found that 6-in-10 seniors with cognitive impairment continued to drive. It’s a reason many states have created Silver Alerts as a way to inform the public that someone has gone missing in their car. To prevent a loved one with dementia from driving, it’s often suggested that you can essentially trick, distract or dissuade them from the topic — by hiding the car, saying the car won’t start (or actually disabling it), claiming it is in the shop, saying a relative needed to borrow it, claiming the keys are lost, etc. You may be uncomfortable lying to your loved one, however, well-intentioned as it may be.
If those approaches aren’t right for your situation, here’s something you can do right now, years or even decades ahead of time:
An advance directive for driving
Your loved one likely knows of, and has maybe even prepared, a medical advance directive. It’s a document that does two things. The portion known as a health care directive, aka a living will, details how you wish to be treated if you can no longer make medical decisions for yourself — such as when you do or don’t wish to be kept on life support, for example. The portion known as durable power of attorney names the person you wish to make those decisions on your behalf.
It’s a concept most seniors are familiar with and have undoubtedly given considerable thought to. Therefore, it’s a small leap toward convincing them, when they are still driving just fine, to prepare something similar — an advance directive for driving.
Kaiser Health News says such a directive can take many forms, perhaps designating specific people who will tell a senior when their driving needs to stop, and even codifying family members’ assurances that they’ll transport the senior when the time comes. Two examples are this from the AAA and American Occupational Therapy Association, along with this one from the Alzheimer’s Association. The latter says this, in part:
“I understand that I may forget that I cannot drive anymore and may try to continue driving. If this happens, please know that I support all actions taken, including removing or disabling my car, to help ensure my safety and the safety of others.”
These directives are not legally binding, but they may make the conversation with your loved one easier when the time comes.
“We should all be planning for our changing transportation needs in our 70s, 80s, and 90s,” Elin Schold Davis, who coordinates the occupational therapists’ Older Driver Initiative, told Kaiser. “The hard part is that driving is associated with independence, and this is such an emotional issue. But the more people look ahead, the more choice and control they can have.”