Should Your Aging Loved One Still Drive?: Five Steps to Safety

For most teens, learning to drive is a major step toward becoming independent. Recognizing the need to give up the keys as we age can be a real blow to self-esteem and self-reliance.

Whether we want to admit it or not, aging is inevitable, and with advanced age, our ability to drive safely can be affected by changes in our physical, emotional, and cognitive health.

When your aging loved one begins to have difficulty driving safely, here are five steps to take, recommended by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA):

1. Identify Changes That Can Affect Driving

Although changes are a part of normal aging, they occur individually and at different rates and times. Just as we plan for retirement, it’s important to plan for transportation needs. Proactive, early planning is paramount to continued independence and safety. Occupational therapy practitioners address driving as an essential activity of daily living and can help older adults maintain their driving safety and community mobility despite age-related changes.

The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) offers this Safe Driver Checklist; if your loved one experiences any of the issues on the list, it’s time for an evaluation.

2. Have a Supportive Family Conversation

One of the first steps in addressing older driver safety is having a nonthreatening conversation with your loved one. Family and friends play a major role in discussions about older driver safety, and it’s better to start the conversation early, allowing time for planning and the exploration of options long before the crisis or accident.

It’s best NOT to have this conversation in the car, when your loved one is driving. Pick a non-threatening time to sit and have an honest talk. Share your concerns without being critical. You might use a news report of a car accident involving an older driver as a starting point, or discuss future plans, such as how your loved one might get to the doctor if she or he were no longer able to drive. Some families find it helpful to identify one person as a driver advocate who rides with your loved one and offers supportive advice, while keeping track of any driving weaknesses for pro-active problem-solving.

3. Screen and Evaluate With Help from an Occupational Therapist

You or your loved one may decide that it’s time to get a check-up on his or her driving fitness. But the services described as “driving fitness evaluations” may seem confusing, as they range from self-assessments (useful education tools to help identify potential challenges) to a professional, comprehensive driving evaluation from an occupational therapy driving rehabilitation specialist. It’s important for you and your loved one to understand the driving service you are getting, so you can act on the results in a meaningful way.

For an evaluation to be useful, there should be no changes in your loved one’s normal routines, medication or other factors that could affect the outcome. You’ll have a clearer sense of recommendations if an adult family member comes along for the evaluation.

A professional safe driving assessment by an occupational therapist will provide the following information:

  • Identify driver’s strengths and any changes in vision, physical ability, and/or cognition that may pose a risk for driving safely.
  • Recommend how driver might strengthen skills, compensate for weaknesses and develop a relationship with the driving specialist to work together to explore every option.
  • Prioritize goals to continue driving safely, but recommend a plan to stop driving now or in the near future if changes in the driver’s skills and abilities are too severe, placing your loved one or others in your community in harm’s way.
  • Remain focused on transportation and participation in your community. The occupational therapy professional will work with the driver to identify the alternative modes of transportation that would work best and provide the needed support.

4. Identify Equipment That Can Empower Drivers

Driving intervention is based on a plan drawn up between your loved one and the occupational therapist. The goal of intervention is to explore ways for your loved one to drive safely for as long as possible. Occupational therapy practitioners trained in driving rehabilitation can suggest a broad range of solutions, tailored to the individual driver. These suggestions sometimes include adaptive equipment. Occupational therapy practitioners can work with older drivers in their vehicles to see which types of equipment, if any, are necessary to help them remain comfortable and safe on the road.

5. Take Changes in Stride

When your loved one discovers the need to make adjustments to drive safely or can no longer do so, family and friends can help him or her take these changes in stride. To do so, all of you need to know about resources for independent community mobility before driving cessation occurs. Losing the ability to drive, limiting the amount of driving, or changing the way one drives does not have to mean losing independence, and your loved one may have options to continue to stay involved in her or his community.

Content for this article was adapted from AOTA’s thoughtful information for Older Driver Safety Awareness Week.

For resources in Massachusetts, visit the Massachusetts RMV’s resource page for Mature Drivers.

For information about driver evaluations in Central Massachusetts, see Deb’s post,  When Is It Time to Take Away the Car Keys?

President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified geriatric care manager. Drawing on more than 30 years of professional experience in geriatric care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.

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