92 and Still Driving? Seniors At The Wheel

Your Dad is 92 years old and still driving. Cause for celebration or perspiration? How do you know what’s right? Because so many of my clients deal with this very issue, I decided to attend a talk recently by Elinor Ginzler of the JCA (Jewish Council for the Aging) that gave some real answers.

The most important fact I walked away with is this one: Driving is not about age - it’s about ability. Repeat that to yourself. For as hard as that might be to grasp, especially if you are the one worrying about your 92-year-old Dad, it is the honest factual answer. Just because someone is in their nineties does not automatically make them an unsafe driver.

In truth, you can’t know your aging parent or relatives’ ability until you have some real evidence, and experience actually observing them drive (ideally from inside the car). It doesn’t have to be far (around the block will do) but you must gather the facts.

If you do think your concerns are valid, the next step is to bring it up in conversation. But how do you do so in a manner that will respect their feelings and enable them to hear what you’re saying?

The first thing you must do is understand their point of view. Having a car = independence. And giving up those keys impacts older drivers in so many more ways than you might think. No one wants to lose their feeling of self-sufficiency, but especially at a later stage in life, when there are often fewer support people around to help.

What’s more, a recent study showed that people aged 65 and over didn’t go where they needed to go more than 50% of the time, simply because they didn’t drive. This can have huge negative outcomes, particularly in terms of healthcare and being able to see a doctor.

With that thought in mind, the next step is broaching the conversation.

You’ve driven with the person of concern, and have seen them going through traffic lights, not signaling safely and drifting into other lanes. So start the conversation framing it around safety.

Ginzler suggests saying something like, “I want you to be safe and the people around you to be safe. I’m scared Dad. I just noticed when we went out to the store, you didn’t signal to turn, you drove up on to the curb, and you parked between two spots.” Give concrete facts and use “I” messages. You can add into the conversation, something like,“This is an icky conversation to have. I’m sure I wouldn’t want to hear this if I were you.” But remember—you aren’t saying something they haven’t already likely thought about.

One thing she mentioned was rather than saying something like, “I’m taking away your car keys,” (which sounds like you're doing something TO them), say something like, “I think it might be time to hang up your car keys.” The slight difference in those phrases is actually quite big – it gives them the power to make the decision, rather than you making it for them.

If you feel the conversation is too hard to have or you’ve tried it and it didn’t work, two other ideas she suggests:

1)    You can send an anonymous referral to the motor vehicle administration about an unsafe driver you saw. They will follow up and make the decision for your older relative.

2)    You can ask their doctor to hand them a written prescription that simply says, “No driving.” Often, people will listen to their doctors more than family.

The biggest issue with hanging up those keys becomes finding alternative modes of transportation. Older adults can be quite distrustful or even fearful of car services or taxis. You will need to help them get over that hurdle, or look to other local resources, such as the JCA here in the Washington area that offers free ride services, or Dr. Amy Schiffman of Capital Health Advocates, who offers a multitude of medical services that come to your home.

For more information on having this conversation with your parents, go to The Hartford’s website and download the free e-book called “We Need to Talk.” The JCA also has a great brochure to download called “A Guide to Safe Driving” which includes a questionnaire that older drivers can ask themselves, as well as other alternatives for getting around.

If you’ve had a successful conversation on this topic with your parents, I’d love you to share your experience in the comments below, so we can all benefit and help each other.

  1. June 14, 2012 at 10:58

    My father is exactly 92 -- 93 next month. He is still driving. He lives in a retirement community in Hawaii and has a group of women residents who don't drive whom he chauffeurs to the opera and symphony, etc. in his large 4-door sedan purchased for that purpose. He is still a very good driver, with a NYC cabby's skill and assertiveness. His driving doesn't frighten me anymore now than it did growing up! He's a former USAF pilot and loves to take control of a powerful machine. I don't look forward to the conversation about hanging up his keys! Thanks for the tips.

    • June 14, 2012 at 22:29

      Thanks for sharing this amazing story about your Dad! I love that he chauffeurs the other residents around! It's great to hear that his driving doesn't frighten you simply because of his age. There were many people at this talk who had a hard time getting past that "age number" rather than looking first at their parent's driving skills. I hope you don't have to have the conversation for a long time...