November 8, 2021

Is It Still Safe for Your Aging Parent to Drive?

What to look for and how to handle signs of impaired driving

elderly man driving car

If you suspect your elderly parent isn’t driving as well as they used to, there are actions you can take to help.

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Some older adults can drive safely in their 80s and even early 90s, but many seniors develop hearing, vision, cognitive and other problems that impair their ability to drive safely. Loss of the ability to drive can isolate older adults, leading to poor nutrition, health problems and depression.

“Determining your parents’ driving ability is the first step toward helping them maintain their independence – and their health,” says internist and geriatrics specialist Kenneth Koncilja, MD.

How to assess your aging parent’s driving skills

“There are a number of things you can look for when deciding whether your parent needs to have a professional driving assessment,” says Dr. Koncilja.

Take a ride with your parent and allow them to drive you to the supermarket or other familiar destination. During the trip, observe whether your loved one can:

  • Decide on a route to the destination.
  • Get back home by an alternate route.
  • Recognize and observe street signs and signals.
  • Change lanes safely by first signaling other drivers.

“Remember, just because mom has a different driving style doesn’t mean she’s a bad or unsafe driver,” he says. Some adult children complain that their parent is a slow driver, or that dad chooses to use a route that allows him to avoid freeways, making the trip longer.

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This is actually a type of self-monitoring, which shows that your loved one is aware of personal limitations and is self-restricting as a precaution.

If you notice that your parent has trouble handling things at home, such as preparing a meal with three or four courses, or other multi-step tasks, they may also have trouble handling more complex driving situations.

Get a doctor’s opinion

Make an appointment with your loved one’s physician. Ask the doctor to determine if an occupational therapy driving evaluation could help your parent. The doctor can write a prescription for the evaluation and periodic visits to the driving clinic, if necessary.

Patients with neurocognitive disorders (dementia) should include family or caregivers in the discussion with their physician. A diagnosis of dementia is most predictive of unsafe driving in older adults. Predictors of unsafe driving include recent traffic citations, motor vehicle accidents and self-reported situational avoidance, such as limiting driving to familiar neighborhoods.

“My goal is to help aging adults stay on the road as long as possible without jeopardizing safety,” says Dr. Koncilja.

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Additionally, make sure your loved one sees the eye doctor regularly so that their eyeglass prescription is always up to date.

Tips for safer elderly driving

Here are some common restrictions that can help elderly drivers:

  • Avoid night driving. Because of cataracts and other vision impairments, many seniors have trouble with night driving and should restrict driving from dusk to dawn. If cataracts cause the problem, simply having them removed could eliminate the need for this restriction.
  • Avoid freeway or interstate driving. The heavier, fast-moving traffic can cause anxiety and confusion in many elderly drivers. If this is the case, show mom or dad alternative routes that use slower roadways.
  • Avoid weekend driving. More people are out on the roads during weekends, making roads and parking areas more congested. This makes it harder for seniors to navigate crowded parking lots where people are milling around, and crossing to and from their cars.

It’s easier to talk to your parent about self-restricting based on their individual limitations and comfort levels. Seeing a driver rehabilitation specialist can help, too. The evaluator can offer insight for restrictions and tips to enhance driving ability based on your parent’s individual needs.

“You see your eye doctor, dentist and primary physician on a regular basis. It’s a good idea to visit your professional driving evaluator for regular checkups, too,” he says. “These regular assessments can actually help seniors keep driving safely for longer.”​

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