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Posted: August 25, 2004

Professional Caregiving

How Well Do Your Own Parents Drive?

Ok, 'fess up. Who among us has counseled caregivers on the risks they take by avoiding the painful discussion with a parent or spouse when it is no longer safe for them to drive? I know I have. But that's not what I am confessing to.

Over a month ago, I took a week-long journey to the Grand Canyon with a friend. He is a backpacker, and hiking in the Grand Canyon would not be a stretch for him. Flying, however, was the challenge he faced. I, on the other hand, fly frequently and enjoy the experience. My challenge was different: hiking miles down a steep grade into the canyon, with the rising sun, heat and dust adding to the difficulty of the steep decline.

More than that, however, was the looming return up the canyon. As we snaked our way down Bright Angel Trail , hikers were ascending, huffing and puffing, stopping every few minutes just to catch their breath. This is where my anxiety increased, because every step down meant one up, and I was already feeling it in my knees. This adventure was both physically and emotionally taxing, yet nothing we did that week compared to the ride home from the airport.

A loving relative (let's just leave her identification at that) picked us up at the airport. Both my friend and I were feeling quite accomplished, and started telling the many stories of this challenging excursion, until we swerved onto the highway, and instead of blending into the merging traffic, my "relative" actually slowed down to let the cars quickly approaching us from behind have "right of way." We were moving from the merging lane into the highway, yet she was stopping to allow the cars to pass!

As she sensed our anxiety at the thought of being rear-ended by a 70 mile-an-hour driver approaching us, she slowed down even more when she should have picked up speed. Well, let me put it this way, I would have rather continued down the Bright Angel Trail for another mile than ride as a passenger in this car!

But here's the connecting point: What I am 'fessing up to? -- and hope some honest folks who are also professionals in the field of aging out there will join me -- is the difficulty we have as adult children in seeing our OWN parents' declining driving safety as easily as we do that of others. I know that when I go anywhere with my mother, I get into the driver's seat, just for comfort, speed, and ease. She happily acquiesces, and we go our merry way.

But if I am not comfortable riding with her when she drives, why aren't I addressing her driving with her? What am I waiting for?

I am experiencing firsthand the beginning of a family member's slowly changing driving ability. Some ways to begin the discussion are using a checklist available through Easter Seals called "Loving Conversations, a Step-by-Step Guide to Help Families Discuss What's Best for an Aging Parent." 

Some of the items on their suggested list include evaluating with your parent. Are they:

  • Driving at inappropriate speeds -- too fast or too slow? 
  • Asking for riders' input when driving on turns, backing up, etc? 
  • Reacting slowly to pedestrians, cyclists or construction signs? 
  • Failing to judge distances properly? 
  • Having one or more near misses? 
  • Bumping into curbs or drifting between lanes? 
  • Lacking strength to turn the wheel quickly in an emergency? 
  • Finding it difficult to turn their head, neck while driving or parking?

I recommend the following, always remembering to start by involving your parent at the very first step. After talking about some of the issues that may be occurring, share your concern and request, as a first step, have their hearing, vision and reflexes checked to ensure there are not physical limitations that might inhibit safe response-time with sudden occurrences.

Taking these tests can be the first demonstration that their driving is in fact still safe. They need to understand that there are compensatory modifications that can be suggested, that do not fully limit driving, but protect them and the others on the road.

AARP sponsors the AARP Driver Safety Program which helps older drivers deal with vision, hearing and reflex problems associated with aging. Additionally, the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists, which can be reached at (877) 529-1830, has these recommendations to encourage:

  • Daytime driving 
  • Street (not highway) driving 
  • Familiar destinations within a certain radius of home 
  • Avoiding rushed situations by allowing plenty of time to arrive without pressure.

If you have any concerns, it's always best to be honest and speak from a position of worries for their and others' safety. In the event they actually are tested and cannot drive safely, make sure they know their options, to ensure they maintain active schedules.

Driving safety is paramount to keeping older adults independent for as long as possible. Driving with a parent should not create the anxiety I felt when descending into the Grand Canyon -- or riding with my relative -- and if it does, we have the obligation to bring it to light.


Sylvia Nissenboim is a licensed clinical social worker and who has been working in the field of adult day services in the St. Louis area. She is the director of four adult care and enrichment centers for the American Red Cross and also operates a personal and professional coaching firm, LifeWork Transitions, specializing in caregiving concerns, adult day care management and other aging services, such as virtual coaching and family care giving support groups. She co-authored The Positive Interactions Program, is a national speaker, and has served as president of the Missouri Adult Day Care Association and as a member of the Missouri Governor's Advisory Council on Aging..

© 2004 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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