The question that I asked in the post was fundamental -- how and when do families get involved when a driver starts to become too physically or cognitively impaired to drive safely? My own family has experienced this first hand -- and it was not an easy time for any of us. Telling an 89 year-old ex-B-29 pilot that he was no longer a safe driver was hard on him and hard on my brother and sisters -- we could have used some good advice to make it go easier.
So I was very pleased to see that Matt Gurwell of KEEPING US SAFE posted his comments about the accident and how families can speak to older relatives about transitioning out of the driver's seat.
I know Matt and his organization; while AAA and AARP have more conventional programs that focus on older drivers sharpening their skills, Keeping Us Safe is focused on helping families and medical professionals help older drivers to give up driving in favor of safer alternatives.
Matt's comments are reproduced below in hopes of continuing this important discussion.
Thank you very much, Mr. Reiter for allowing me the opportunity to respond to your post. Your comments raise several important issues, but for purposes of your blog I would like to focus on one issue in particular, "When and how should these conversations start?"
How great it would be if there was a boilerplate answer to this question. It would be so nice if we could just turn to the chapter in the manual on caring for our aging parents and then simply follow the set of instructions and checklists on how to have a difficult conversation with either of them (each would, of course, have their own manual).
But it’s obviously not that simple, primarily because the dynamics of every family are different. What might work in your family would never work in mine, and vice versa. Despite society’s best attempts to make a model that would guarantee every family’s success, there still is no “one size fits all” game plan on how concerned family members should approach a parent about driving cessation.
The good news, however, is that over time some ‘patterns of success’ that can serve most families very well in their attempt to help a loved one make a smooth transition from the driver’s seat to the passenger seat have evolved. Here are three (of many) recommendations that seem to present themselves consistently when we look at stories of successful family-prompted driving retirements:
1) Start the conversations now (today!), regardless of where your loved one is in the aging process
In other words, start greasing the skids now! Discussions about driving cessation should take place over time. Assuming time permits, this should be a process as opposed to an event. Start talking to mom today about the possibility of someday having to retire from driving. According to a study that first appeared in the American Journal of Public Health, we are outliving our safe driving years by 7-10 years. For me personally, I want to fall into that category; I want to live long enough that I outlive my safe driving years!
Again, assuming you are starting these discussions early enough (pre-diminishment in cognitive or physical skills), consider starting simple conversations with your loved one like “Mom, did you see on the news where the 87 year old driver near Boston ran over the Salvation Army bell ringer?”. And then engage your mother in a discussion about what she would do if her driving skills ever began to diminish. These should be very simple, non-intrusive conversations.
2) When it comes time, these ground-breaking conversations can be escalated appropriately
Now, if your loved one’s driving abilities ever do begin to slip, you are already comfortable talking to a parent about diminished driving skills. You can use the momentum gained from these previous discussions as a foundation to escalate the intensity and directness of your continuing conversations. It may now be appropriate to present similarities and likenesses to the leading news story, comparing that story with something that happened recently with your loved one.
3) Use appropriate verbiage and terminology
You don’t need me to tell you that the family conversations surrounding an aging parent’s diminished driving skills can become very emotional or even worse…volatile! When not handled properly, these conversations have been known to divide families. They are complicated, sensitive and sometimes very frustrating. To make matters worse, your loved one may already be experiencing some type of cognitive decline, which is skewing their natural ability to make rational decisions.
Your conversations with mom or dad need to be based on facts, not on a family member’s opinion, emotion or speculation. Telling dad that is driving is “horrible and he’s going to hurt someone” can be likened in many ways to launching a grenade at him. Stay away from general statements and opinions and focus on the facts. “Dad we are concerned about your driving because ……..” will prove much more effective.
That makes using the right verbiage and terminology very critical to the process. It is equally important to understand that this project needs to be worked as a collaborative effort between family and the older driver. Don’t use phrases like “take away the keys” or “take your car”, if you do, you’re right back at the whole grenade thing! Using softer, less aggressive terms like “driving retirement” and “transitioning to the passenger seat” are sure to help make the overall process more amiable for the older driver.