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Seniors and Driving: Is is a good idea?

The good news is that seniors are relatively safe drivers. The actual number of accidents involving older drivers decreases as age increases. Experts attribute this to self-imposed limitations that include driving fewer miles and avoiding problematic situations like driving at night, during rush hour and on high speed roadways.

The bad news, however, is that drivers over 75 have a higher risk of being involved in an accident for every mile they drive. The rate of fatalities increases significantly by this age – in fact, it is on par with teenage drivers (another sobering thought).

So, what can be done? A free online tool launched by The University of Florida (fitnesstodrive.phhp.ufl.edu) is intended to help family members identify drivers age 65 and older who may be at risk for driving problems.

The Fitness-to-Drive Screening Measure can be completed by caregivers or family members who have been passengers in a vehicle driven by an older driver within the past three months. After completing the questionnaire, users receive a rating profile of the older driver, recommendations that can be shared with health professionals and links to resources, such as availability of alternative transportation options.

In studies to determine the accuracy of caregiver and family members’ assessments, University of Florida researchers compared their evaluations of older drivers to professional evaluations of the same older drivers and found that the caregiver and family members’ ratings were consistent and reliable.

The online questionnaire takes about 20 minutes to complete. Four short videos provide step-by-step instructions for each section. Users answer questions about the older person’s driving history and rate performance on different driving skills, such as staying within lane markings, turning left across multiple lanes when there is no traffic light, and merging onto a highway. On the basis of these responses, the screening tool classifies the older driver in one of three categories: accomplished driver, routine driver, or at-risk driver.

So, if an elderly loved one falls into the last category, what can you do?

Ongoing conversations with family members can help. A survey of older adults found that more than half say they followed the suggestions of others, with women generally more compliant than men. They may prefer to hear it from their spouse (or from professionals like their doctor), but will also listen to their adult children.

While seniors may even agree with the assessment, the implications are significant and they may resist. After all, it can mean fewer trips outside the home, increased dependency on others, fewer social opportunities, and the fear of becoming a burden to others.

Here are some suggestions on how to handle this situation:

  • Be prepared to have multiple conversations. Don’t look upon it as a one shot deal. Ongoing, candid conversations can establish a pattern of open dialogue and give the older adult time to consider the situation without the strain of necessarily changing behaviors immediately.
  • Start with appropriate conversation openers. Rather than tell a parent “you need to stop driving,” begin by talking about the importance of safety and health, other options that may be available to help them get around, the dangers of certain road situations, etc.
  • Use mishaps or near misses, or health changes as a lead in. Praising a senior for choosing to limit her driving to day time or discussing how the taking of a new medication may make her sleepier or less alert, should be considered.
  • Investigate the alternatives to driving. Find out what other options exist. Is there a bus or train line? Are there friends or relatives who can provide them with a ride? Can the children increase their visits?
  • Discuss your concerns with a doctor. It’s always easier to blame any decision on the doctor. A recommendation to stop driving that comes from the senior’s doctor usually carries the most weight.
  • Be supportive. Adult children need to understand that this is more than just the loss of their car, but a clear blow to their freedom and independence. The transition can be a difficult one.

What if these steps fail to get the desired response? Experts say that if a high-risk driver refuses to stop driving, the family may have no choice but to sell the car or take away the keys. Hopefully, by following these suggestions, it won’t get to that point and you can have an open conversation that finds the best fit for your loved ones.

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