Happy holidays, Dad, now let me take away your car keys

Suppose you’re the adult offspring of an aging parent you see only occasionally — maybe just for holiday visits — and you notice something amiss with their driving habits.

Maybe their car has an unusual number of dents that weren’t there the last time you saw it. Perhaps they’re unsure of a customary driving route you’re certain they ought to know. Maybe their odometer reading is way higher than it ought to be, indicating a tendency to get lost.

What’s a son or daughter to do in such situations?

Here’s what an irresponsible, non-confrontational child would do: Pretend to develop a sudden illness, hide from Mom or Dad the rest of the trip and change travel plans to get away as soon as possible before you have to have a talk no one wants to have.

If you’re a more mature, considerate member of society, however, you will begin ever so lightly to bring up the subject of whether it’s time to TAKE AWAY THE CAR KEYS!

“Don’t wait for an accident to happen before having a conversation with a family member or friend,” advises Richard Nead, manager of driver rehabilitation for the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J. “It’s ... important to be ready to discuss this potentially difficult issue and to have a plan in place to address how to best meet transportation needs going forward.”

Aging Edge brings up the driving topic because of a succession of press releases it has received, presumably timed to the holiday period when stark changes may be apparent in the sharpness of an older family member whom you see infrequently. One of the toughest things to bring up with any older adult is a decline in their ability to drive safely, because so many view their vehicle as their key to independence.

Sometimes there’s no avoiding it though — or at least, avoiding it isn’t the right call — if the safety of not just your relative but other innocent people on the road is at issue. And that’s where some strategies and recommendations from the so-called experts can help.

A blog post from Dr. Douglas Scharre, director of the division of cognitive neurology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, described the difficult gray area where people’s skills are slipping — and they may even have early dementia — but it’s still reasonable to let them drive safely. But subtle testing and monitoring are apt in the following ways, he said:

• Someone should ride with or follow the motorist in question at least once a month to check for impairments.

• Keep watch for new dents or scrapes on the car as an indication of erratic driving.

• Monitor the car mileage to see if unexplained miles are being put on by those who would normally take only short trips.

If questions arise, it’s likely time for an evaluation by a family physician to see if there are issues that can be addressed to improve functioning, or if a safe driving class of the kind offered by AAA would help. On the other hand, serious preventive action may be called, such as contacting state authorities who oversee motorists’ testing and licenses. In some cases, cars may need to be disabled or keys may have to be hidden.

“Families often are afraid to be the ‘bad guys,’ even though this is truly the only safe option” at times, Dr. Scharre wrote.

Kessler’s Mr. Nead suggested that family members be on the lookout for changes in reaction time, memory, vision or physical abilities, which can all be affected adversely by the aging process.

If a family goes about discussing and preparing for the potential end of car use the right way, it doesn’t have to be as devastating (supposedly). Ride-sharing services are so common now as to be a ready transportation replacement in many cases, in addition to chauffeuring by friends or family or the community transportation systems that may be available.

Kessler neuropsychologist Kelly Kearns cautions, of course, that no one should expect any of these discussions with loved ones to be easy. Not on this topic.

“Anger and sadness are often associated with the loss of driving, so let the individual express his or her thoughts, acknowledge their feelings, and respond with compassion,” Dr. Kearns suggests.

Good luck with that.

Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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