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Caring for Elderly Parents: Do Car Keys have an Expiration Date?

aging parent, aging parents, elderly parents

© Daria Filimonova |

Getting elderly parents to hang up car keys permanently is as tricky as grabbing an angry tiger by the tail then wondering how to safely let go and remain unscathed. Driving is one of the last forms of independence, autonomy, and identity elderly parents have left.

Driving is a way of life in today’s society. Obtaining your first driver’s license was exhilarating, a ticket to freedom, and a sign of maturity. Independence and autonomy go hand-in-hand with a driver’s license; without it, your identity and independence are threatened. Hanging up the car keys for good can be devastating and traumatic.

“The most dangerous people on the roads are males under 20 and all people over 75.”

~Virginia Morris, How to Care for Aging Parents

Outings taken by elderly parents have to be planned in advance. Logistics of getting to and from a destination have to figured out. Navigating iffy sidewalks while juggling coat, purse, and cane has to be planned for.  Logistics are even more daunting if there is grocery shopping involved.

Driving Skills Decline With Age

Contemplating having to stop driving is very scary for anyone, especially an elderly person. Elderly people vehemently deny their diminished driving capabilities, stoutly maintaining they can drive just fine, thank you very much. However, it’s a fact of life that driving skills decline as a person gets into their 70’s and higher. Virginia Morris, in her book titled How to Care for Aging Parents (p. 140), identifies five driving skills that decline as people get older:

Psychologists compare the brain’s information processing activities with the way a computer processes information. For example, the ear receives input in the form of sounds, such as horns honking or tires squealing and codes those sounds into electrical signals that travel to the brain. The brain stores them to be used by other parts of the brain that relate to other mental activity. The stored and coded information is sent out to the eyes and muscles causing the head to turn, the eyes to look around, the foot to get ready to apply the brake or push on the gas pedal, and the hands to tighten on the steering wheel.

As people age, the ability to process information at high speed slows down, along with reflexes and coordination—everything necessary to react quickly to potential hazards or emergency situations.

If an elderly person doesn’t recognize or acknowledge any of the signs indicating diminished driving skills, what risk factors should family members be aware of that contribute to deterioration of an elderly person’s driving skills?

Diminished Driving Risk Factors

Ignoring the red flags and risk factors happens for two reasons. One, we don’t want to acknowledge our parents are getting on in years (we are in denial). Two, we don’t know how to bring up the touchy topic of safe driving or that it might be time to hang up the car keys for good. Let’s take a few minutes and identify some of the more common risk factors that contribute to diminished driving skills, some of the red flags, and what can be done to reduce the impact of the risk factors:

Marlo Sollitto, in an article titled Is It Time to Take Away the Car Keys? states that an optometrist or ophthalmologist will be able to spot vision problems or identify any visual limitations with an elderly parent’s sight. If your elderly parent struggles with night driving, then his or her eye doctor can accommodate their continuing to drive by limiting their driving to daytime only. Some eye conditions, such as cataracts or glaucoma, can be corrected with simple surgical procedures, prolonging the amount of time your parent can safely drive.

Red Flags

Red flags are cause for concern. Paying attention to possible red flags alerts us to to start paying attention to driving habits or patterns that may be putting the older driver and others at risk. Pay attention to these red flags and talk to your elderly parents doctor. Whatever you do, don’t drop into denial and ignore these potentially serious warning signs. Denial can get your parent, or someone else, killed. Below is a list of the most common red flags:

Improve Elderly Parents Driver Safety

We’ve looked at five driving skills that diminish over time and talked about risk factors, and red flags so what can you do to keep your elderly parents driving safely? Should they be allowed to continue driving? Let’s look at some ways you can help improve your elderly parents’ safety behind the wheel.

Ear disorders are screened for by looking at a person’s history of noise exposure, medical conditions, and symptoms of hearing loss. A complete audiologic screening process takes approximately ten minutes and identifies whether an individual has normal hearing or should be referred for a comprehensive audiologic evaluation.

Clean the headlights and replace wiper blades periodically. Schedule regular visits to the mechanic to keep the vehicle in good working order, install large or extra mirrors or other adaptive devices to make it easier for your parent to drive, and whenever possible, make sure the new car is an automatic with power everything. Check out a program called CarFit, found both in the United States and Canada, dedicated to improving your elderly parent’s car to fit their specific needs.

Driving Skills Resources

In an effort to keep your elderly parent independent and driving safely for as long as possible, the following list, put together by Virginia Morris in her book titled How to Care for Aging Parents, contains evaluations and refresher courses designed to test and refresh the driving skills of elderly drivers:

Additional resources for refresher courses include senior centers, driving school, and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Getting old isn’t for the faint of heart. Having to step in and become a more integral part of your elderly parent’s daily lives isn’t what most of us plan on doing or even want to do. However, an increasing level of day-to-day contact and helping to manage their lives is part of the process of aging. Knowing how to help your aging parents navigate this challenging time in their lives will help ease some of the inevitable clashes and struggles as familiar roles change and evolve.

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