How to make giving up driving a little less overwhelming

Loved ones can help ease this major life change

Older drivers live seven to 10 years beyond when they should stop driving, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety says In 2016, the foundation found, more than 200,000 drivers over age 65 were involved in crashes. More than 3,500 died. The most common reasons people say they stop driving are falling asleep at the wheel and trouble maintaining a lane. Research shows older drivers who had their keys taken away are more likely to suffer from depression. "Talking sooner, rather than later, can help set mutual

When drivers reach the point where they’re no longer able to safely operate a motor vehicle, that credit-card-sized license can become a source of struggle — a situation in which you or your spouse, sibling or parent can underestimate just how much a driver’s license can mean.

“The only thing we have that connects us to the outside world is the car in many situations,” Phyllis Wright, an adult gerontology nurse practitioner told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Wright is an associate professor and adult gerontology primary care specialty coordinator at Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing.

“Faced with losing driving privileges, that isolation is right up in your face. And so much is attached to the autonomy granted by an automobile. Older people don’t want to be a burden to their kids. Not everyone lives near a train or other types of public transit.”

If you’re the one in a position of convincing a loved one that it’s time to surrender their driving privileges, you may be contending with grief and a seemingly unreasonable resistance to being safe and staying off the road.

“It’s going to be a loss,” Wright said. “But there are ways to make it so that loss is not so overwhelming.”

Here are tips from Wright and other aging — and driving experts — for making the transition with the least stress.

Don’t make it about age

“The biggest mistake I see is when people make it about the person’s age,” former psychotherapist Jennifer FitzPatrick told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“There are 95-year-olds who are great drivers and 55-year-olds who can’t drive, and reaching a certain age doesn’t somehow make a person automatically negligent or incompetent,” said FitzPatrick, who is the author of “Cruising Through Caregiving.”

“Don’t say, ‘Oh, you’re getting old.’ That isn’t fair, and it can quickly turn the conversation nasty and offensive.”

Talk to yourself first

Mitzi DeBusk, a registered nurse and remote consultant for a national home health organization, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that adult children often have a very hard time telling mom or dad they can’t do something they’d like to keep doing.

“It’s a very emotional time,” she said. “You don’t want to be alienated from someone you love, and you don’t want a parent to get mad at you. Getting past that feeling is important, though. When you need to stop an unsafe driver, you have to develop (a) tough skin.”

Factor in optimism

People with declining driving abilities can be more like your children than the parents you’ve known all your lives, DeBusk said.

“It’s as if you’ve switched roles, and your messages aren’t landing, any more than they sometimes do with young children. It’s common for them, much like a teen, to read the stats and hear the stories and still think, ‘It’s not going to happen to me.’”

People who age well and keep going tend to be “forward thinking and hoping for a better tomorrow,” Wright said.

Come up with a plan before the need arises

Work with your loved one to define what they love about life and then work on ways to get them there so the inability to drive a car isn’t as harsh, Wright said.

“You don’t just drop this in someone’s lap: ‘OK, you’re not driving anymore.’ You have to think it through and get familiar with the options in their area.”

You might be able to help your loved one tap into community transit or other transportation options, including ride-share services such as Uber or Lyft.

“Be sure to learn what’s out there and how you could employ those options ahead of broaching the subject,” Wright said. “Ask your loved one, ‘What do you love most and how can I get you there?’ And then bring together family and friends to make the most-loved activities happen.”

Stick to the facts

To avoid approaching the interaction emotionally, prepare specific examples and stick to those facts, FitzPatrick suggested.

“Try to keep a log of things you’ve noticed, like running stop signs or being pulled over for driving under the speed limit.”

Get health care providers involved

This strategy can help put the surrendering of a driver’s license on the same footing as other health developments. Advice on how and when to proceed might be more acceptable coming from a trusted health care provider, according to Wright.

A 2016 Consumer Reports survey of 4,543 drivers age 65 and older showed you can’t rely on older drivers to police themselves. Of the drivers surveyed, 9% said they’re not likely to stop driving if they sensed they were endangering themselves or others. And 16% said they’re unlikely to hang up their keys even after “having too many accidents or close calls.”

A doctor’s judgment, though, could persuade 56% of the respondents to stop driving.

But you can’t hand the confrontation to a third-party medical provider who’s never met your loved one.

“There has to be a relationship already between that family member and the provider. Both you and your loved one will appreciate that backup of someone with medical authority,” Wright said.

Consider the context

It’s far too easy for the loved one to feel attacked, Wright said. Instead of harping on their age or diminished capacity, she recommends likening the shift away from driving a personal vehicle to the standards the department of transportation requires must be met to resume driving after a cardiac event.

“Those are accepted norms that dictate whether someone is allowed to drive,” she said. “In these other situations, it should be the same way of thinking, whether you are physiologically able to continue driving and be safe and keep others safe.”

Follow through

Just because a person has surrendered their license and canceled their car insurance doesn’t mean they won’t get behind the wheel if there is an operative car within reach, DeBusk said. So keep an eye on the situation, taking measures to make the car undrivable or parking it where it’s not accessible if the no-longer fit driver seems inclined to get back on the road.

Commit to the long hall

Avoid the tendency to downplay the severity of this situation.

“There is a grieving process with this major life change,” Minneapolis certified driver rehabilitation specialist Kathy Woods told Consumer Reports. “Some accept the outcome more quickly, while others struggle longer.”

Whether it’s your mate with whom you share a household or a far-away parent or sibling, remember that becoming a non-driver is a process, not a single action, according to Wright.

“It’s time-consuming to do it right, but time is the most valuable thing we can offer our loved ones. You need to start slowly, drop hints, (and) prepare before something life-threatening occurs,” she said. “Do that, and you have a partnership.”

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