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Older Drivers: Having “The Conversation”

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Are Older Drivers More Dangerous?

Older Driver

Older drivers may or may not become dangerous drivers. An unfortunate truism of aging is that some of our most competent, successful, self-actualized and responsible citizens can become very dangerous drivers. They become dangerous to themselves and dangerous to others. That is just a simple fact that is true in every single community in our car-driven country. The shocking stories are many… I won’t sensationalize them here. The Insurance Information Institute in a March 2017 report states that older drivers have higher rates of fatal crashes than all age groups other than the youngest age group.

Of course, it’s one thing to say “Aging drivers can be dangerous” as social commentary. It’s another thing altogether to say it to an aging individual. The transition from complete autonomy to increasing dependence upon others is challenging. It is always a difficult conversation, but it is a crucial conversation to have at the right time. It is a conversation I have had more times than I can count. I went through it for a few years with my own father. He was a 30-plus years Teamster and long-haul truck driver. You think he gave up his keys very easily?

When to Have “The Conversation”

The problem is, there is no absolute, black-and-white “Right time.” You may have a perfectly competent 94-year old driver, and a menace-on-the-road 69-year old driver. Age is not at all a good indicator. There are many ambiguities and varying circumstances. However, truth be known, by the time most drivers give up their keys, everyone around them would agree that they should have given up their keys a long time sooner than they did.

The loss of driving skills and reflexes creeps up on people unless they have had a suddenly severe health event. There can be deep resistance to giving up driving as driving skills become less competent. There can be very deep levels of denial and covering up of minor accidents. These are early warning signs of a dangerous older driver. The car evolves more unexplained dings and dents and sideswipes and all the family members have raised eyebrows, but feel perplexed about what to do. See the AARP’s list of 10 signs that older drivers should stop or limit driving here—>

We want to intervene, but we don’t want to offend or hurt feelings. Maybe we even have our own levels of denial or conversation avoidance. It’s easy to say, “It doesn’t matter about his feelings… he’s dangerous, what if he kills somebody? Take the keys away!”

Older Drivers’ Sense of Identity

Well, it’s just not that simple and easy for family members, and this is why many turn to an outside third party to have the “Dad-you-can-no-longer-drive” conversation. I have had this conversation with so many people during my many years working in Senior Care and Home Care. Our ability to drive and enjoy the “Freedom of the Road” is a huge cultural value in our country that is popularized around the world. Many tourists from other countries come here specifically for the experience of driving the “American Open Roads.”

The “Freedom of the Road” cultural belief is deeply ingrained in the American identity. The loss of the ability to drive is so hugely symbolic that it can seem to mean, “Your Life is Over.” You might as well be an oncologist telling someone they have cancer when you tell someone they can no longer drive. Except with cancer, you might have a fighting chance! The loss of driving privileges feels like a threshold that once crossed, there is no return. And usually this is true, and because it is true, we can realize that the emotional process of denial in the aging driver is really the desire to stave off feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and despair as autonomy feels like it is slipping away.

I have infinite compassion when I have “Stop Driving” conversations with aging drivers. I also have the sure knowledge that to avoid and delay the conversation potentially places the health and lives of others at risk. And so it is with both genuine compassion and civic responsibility and knowledge that I help an aging driver make the emotional transition to letting go of driving, not because he is forced, but because he sees the wisdom and dignity in doing so.

The Conversation has to start somewhere

The conversation must start with consideration of all the feelings related to identity and autonomy. However, once you have identified that there are problems, you need to begin the conversation with respect and compassion. If you meet angry resistance, you need to come back to it enough times to reach agreement on limits or stopping driving altogether. And if you meet a brick wall, it is time for a direct discussion with your parent’s physician. Ask that a report be made to the DMV so that a driving test and assessment is required. It is the wisest, safest and most compassionate thing you can do.