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Talking with at-risk drivers about their options

Talking with at-risk drivers about their options
Blog Editor Barb Borg

Making the decision to give up driving can be huge and for some, emotionally charged. In part, it is because of what driving represents — the freedom to come and go spontaneously, self-worth and self-identity. If obtaining one’s license and one’s first automobile represent taking a major step into the vast ocean of adulthood, what does relinquishing these mean?

For some people giving up driving signals the beginning-of-the-end of life as they have known it. And not just for older drivers. People at any age can develop medical conditions that make safe driving a challenge: people who take medications that make them drowsy, or people whose cataract surgery or near-sightedness impairs their night driving or people who experience occasional light-headedness or whose anxiety leads them to be more easily distracted. Any of these conditions and countless others can diminish one’s driving capacity.

I recently attended an AARP session titled, “We Need to Talk,” which presented suggestions for ways to address concerns about driving with an at-risk family member. As Via’s mobility specialist, I provide information and referral about mobility options to individuals considering Via’s services – many of whom are also considering or have recently given up their car. I also talk to adult children who want their parents to discontinue driving.

The AARP session provided a helpful paradigm for fostering a constructive conversation around the issue of driving, and one less likely to elicit defensiveness and exasperation. An initial premise is that the adult child should bring up the driving concern in an understanding way by acknowledging his or her parent’s feelings and what the loss of driving means.

A second key piece is that the family should not wait until the driving is totally unacceptable before addressing the concern. Talking about driving and hazards can be a natural part of family conversation. For example, when the weather becomes inclement, it would be logical to suggest that the parent might consider waiting until conditions improve. Or, if the older family member says that driving in traffic has become stressful because it is heavy during certain times of the day, the adult child might suggest avoiding driving during those times.

Thirdly, it may not always be imperative that the older or at-risk driver give up all driving, but rather that they curtail their driving to adjust to changing circumstances. In this way, if and when the conversation turns to giving up driving completely, it’s not a conversation that is coming out of the blue. This is when understanding the older driver’s attitudes/beliefs about his or her own driving becomes critically important.

One way to broach that conversation is to ask the older adult to share concerns about not being able to drive. This is the place to employ active listening — making sure that you are really listening and discerning the belief(s) that the parent has about not driving. Then, validate these concerns rather than dismissing them.

If the belief is that driving a car is the only way I can get places, then the adult child might focus on helping to arrange transportation options that will help the older adult not only get to appointments but to run errands and continue with social outings. As we say here at Via, the more transportation options one has, the better.

If the belief is that my identity and status depend on my owning a car, then having the car “available” but not driving it may be most important. The car could be kept parked at the rider’s home and available for others to drive. The older driver needs to buy into this arrangement for it to be carried out respectfully. Keeping a car at the driver’s home but hiding the car keys may not be a respectful arrangement.

If the older adult believes that I need a car in order to have freedom and spontaneity, then the adult-child could generate alternatives enabling more personal control over outings. For example, the older adult might be a great candidate for learning some basic fixed bus routes or the family might be able to engage (even pay) a neighbor to be a driver. Sometimes the older person feels that I am too often the ‘taker’ in what used to be ‘give and take’ relationships, so think about ways that the family, friend and neighbors can continue to ask for and accept help and favors from the older adult.

Given the conversations that I have with riders, the reality is that giving up driving typically does limit spontaneous outings to some extent, so it is important that the older person become more accustomed to planning ahead. The belief that you want to foster is that one can continue to live a satisfying, quality life even while limiting or discontinuing driving.

If you want to talk about driving concerns for yourself or a family member, please contact our Mobility Specialist at 303-444-3043 Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can also email at mobilityspecialist@viacolorado.org.