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When Dad Should Stop Driving




Marion Somers may be an expert on caring for elderly people, but that didn't mean it was a cinch persuading her father to quit driving.

"It was one of the most serious and complicated issues that I've had to deal with," says Somers, author of "Elder Care Made Easier."

Taking the keys away from an aging parent means navigating tricky issues of independence and role reversal. But the decision is too serious to ignore.

Drivers over 75 have the second-highest rate, after teenagers, of fatal crashes per mile driven, according to Federal Highway Administration data from 2001.

Dan Mankin of Sun Valley, Idaho, says that his father, who lived in Santa Barbara, California, before he died at age 83, took it personally when Mankin took the car. "It hurt us all to see him so angry," says Mankin, "but the consequences could have been so horrendous."

Independence is the main reason seniors are hesitant to give up driving, explains Janice Austin, an elder care resource counselor at the University of Kentucky.

"At a time in their life when their aging bodies may limit them physically, a car may be one of the few ways seniors continue to feel self-sufficient."

10 questions to ask

Not all older drivers experience deterioration in their driving skills. But the changes that often come with age -- vision and hearing loss, slower reaction times, chronic illness -- can affect driving ability.

There are important questions to consider, according to Somers and the National Institute on Aging.

"If you can answer yes to just one of these questions, it could be time to take your elder off the road," says Somers, who is also a geriatric-care manager.

1. Is the person a competent driver during the day but incompetent at night?

2. Does the driver have drastically reduced peripheral vision, even if he or she can otherwise see 20/20 with corrective lenses?

3. Does he or she do well driving locally but struggle at higher speeds or when directions are needed?

4. Is the driver hitting curbs, missing turns or putting pedestrians at risk?

5. Has he or she been in an accident that was deemed his or her fault?

6. Do other drivers honk when this person is at the wheel?

7. Does the driver get lost, even on familiar roads?

8. Does the driver say that cars or pedestrians seem to appear out of nowhere?

9. Have family, friends or doctors expressed worries about the person's driving?

10. Is the person driving less because he or she is no longer as confident about driving?

Having the talk

It helps to have a thoughtful, caring plan in place before saying anything, says Harriet Vines, author of "Age Smart: How to Age Well, Stay Fit and Be Happy."

Her suggestions:

• Be empathetic. "Imagine how you would feel if you were in your parent's place," Vines says.

• Build a case. Keep a record of traffic tickets, fender-benders or any other incidents that worried you, including the time, date, location and a brief description.

• Arrange an open meeting with concerned family members to help, not confront. Keep communications honest, open and non-accusatory. Say things like, "We're concerned," "We care" or "We don't want you to get hurt or to hurt others." Refer to the record.

• Plan a gradual curtailment of driving -- for example, no children in the car, no highways, no driving above 45 mph.

• Agree on circumstances that will signal it's time to give up the car keys.

What if the conversation doesn't go well, or you're unable to begin it?

"Asking a physician to discuss the issue is a good alternative," says the University of Kentucky's Austin. "Advice from a doctor is often highly regarded."

Arrange for alternatives

If it's time for your parent to stop driving, investigate transportation alternatives before taking away the keys. These can include city buses, taxis, chauffeur services, and shuttles offered by churches, retirement communities, senior centers or local agencies on aging.

Friends and family members also may be willing to drive, as Somers found with her father -- "His lady friend was happy to pick him up for their dates" -- and food and medications can usually be delivered.

Somers even bought her father, who was 77 when he passed away, an adult tricycle for short trips to the grocery store.

"The bike gave him transportation, exercise and fresh air," Somers says. "The end result was that he started to meet more people because he was out and about and more visible."

None of this took place overnight. Somers spent almost two months making phone calls and traveling between New York and her father's home in Florida, but the planning paid off. Her father soon became accustomed to not driving.

"It was an emotional issue," Somers says, "but I had to make sure that he wouldn't kill himself or somebody else. If I had to do it all over again, I would."


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