Is It Time For The Talk?

How to Talk to Elderly Parents About Giving up Driving

Are you concerned about your elderly parent having a car accident? Telling mom or dad that it’s time to relinquish their car keys and give up driving can be one of the most difficult conversations for adult children. At the same time, avoiding “the talk” can be a matter of life or death. Statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)
reveal that the death rate for drivers who are 70 or older is three times the rate of drivers ages 35 to 54.

Most Seniors Are Willing to Talk, but Adult Children Avoid the Conversation

A 2014 Liberty Mutual Insurance survey of 1,000 adults ages 75 and above revealed that 84 percent of senior drivers were open to talking about either limiting or stopping driving. At the same time, a mere 6 percent have had a conversation with anyone about their driving abilities.

According to Key-Whitman Eye Center President and Chief Surgeon Jeffrey Whitman, M.D., “This is a very delicate subject, and it needs to be handled by the family early on. It’s very helpful if you can have ‘the talk’ before there’s ever a problem with mom’s or dad’s driving. It’s also important to have a plan to help them maintain their independence once their keys are taken away.”

Cataract Surgery and Eye Exams Can Get Many Seniors Back on the Road Quickly

Along with vision conditions, there are a number of issues that impede a senior’s ability to drive safely, including: medications, slower reaction times, declining muscle strength and mental health challenges (Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, senility). However, one of the most treatable issues that keep seniors from driving is cataracts.

“Cataracts are the No. 1 issue eye doctors can correct to get seniors back on the road quickly, and cataract surgery is something we perform here on a daily basis. Along with loss of clarity, there are three common signs that people typically experience when they
have cataracts,” Dr. Whitman says. These cataract symptoms and signs include:

  1. Colors are more dull. People with cataracts may find themselves disagreeing with friends or loved ones about the color of something like wall paint or fabric.
  2. Trouble seeing to drive at night. Night glare is a common symptom of cataracts. Difficulty seeing at night can cause some seniors with cataracts to spend less time driving at night or eliminating night driving altogether.
  3. Difficulty reading street signs. Cataract sufferers often need to get very close to a street sign before they can read it, or they might not be able to read it at all.

Dr. Whitman also encourages seniors to get an annual eye exam in case other treatable eye conditions are making it difficult to drive. “We can treat some conditions with vitamin supplements or nutraceuticals, monitor and treat diabetic eye conditions and often times find that a simple change in an eye glasses prescription is all that the patient needs,” he adds.

Approaching Elderly Parents Early and With a Plan in Hand Is Critical

Dr. Whitman believes it’s helpful if there’s an agreement to openly discuss when either side has concerns (child notices a couple of dents in the car, parent says they are nervous driving or if there’s an accident or close call.)

Says Dr. Whitman, “The best thing to do is to go on a drive together. The adult child should monitor the senior’s response time, agility and whether they remember to look both ways before crossing an intersection. I also encourage adult children to accompany their parents on all doctor’s appointments, especially at age 65 and beyond. That’s the best way to stay on top of their parents overall health.”

Taking Away the Keys Should Be a Mutual Decision

Dr. Whitman encourages families to be proactive and tackle the issue early together. Being respectful of your parents desire to maintain a degree of independence is key. “You have to have a family plan so mom and dad know how they are going to get to the store, how they are going to get to church, and most important, how they will keep their independence,” Dr. Whitman advises.

An Eye Exam May Help Seniors Safely Keep Their Eyes on the Road

If you suspect your elderly parent is having difficulty driving, don’t avoid “the talk” a minute longer. Odds are good that they will be receptive to talking with you about their driving abilities. And make it a priority to schedule an eye exam for mom or dad as soon as possible. If vision problems are at the root of your elderly parent’s driving issues, cataract surgery or a new pair of glasses could easily extend their years on the road, as long as other troubling health conditions aren’t present.