Giving Up the Car Keys?

Recognizing warning signs that it might be time to stop driving.

Tracy Palmer didn’t see the accident, but she received a frantic call that every parent dreads: her 11-year-old son had been hit by a car.

“We were on vacation visiting my brother, and I’d gone to get coffee and my phone rang,” she said. “My brother told that an 82-year old woman hit my son while he and a few of his cousins were sitting just off the driveway drawing with chalk. She never saw the kids and when she hit my son she thought she’d hit a ball, so she kept going. Thank God one of the neighbors saw it and stopped her.”

After eight days in the intensive care unit, Palmer’s son is on the mend, but Palmer, however, who works as an attorney in Arlington, is furious that the elderly driver was allowed behind the wheel of a car in the first place.

Monitoring one’s driving abilities is an essential part of our overall healthcare, especially as one ages. “There’s no cutoff age for when a person should stop driving. But as we age, our joints can become stiff, our reflexes slow down and our ability to make split-second judgement calls or stop on a dime can become impaired,” said Dana Kilgore, MSPT. “Our bodies also become more frail as we age, so the impact of a car accident would probably do more harm to a 85-year old than a 25-year old.”

It is important for seniors and their families to pay close to attention to the warning signs that it’s time to reduce one’s driving or stop it all together, says psychologist Donna Goldstein, Psy.D. “If you notice an increased number of scratches or dents on mom’s or dad’s car, especially if they’ve always been a good driver, that could be an indicator,” she said. “Getting traffic tickets, getting lost frequently, running stop signs or traffic lights; those are all signs that it might be time to leave the driving to someone else.”

Accepting the fact that it’s time to stop driving can be difficult. “A driver’s license isn’t just a plastic card with a bad picture that you keep in your wallet,” said Lisa Dombo, LPC, Ed.D, a marriage and family therapist in McLean. “It means freedom and independence. It’s hard for anyone to want to give that up. That’s one of the reasons why it can be so hard for people to convince someone that they need to stop driving.”

That is a lesson that Naomi O’Conner learned one weekend this winter when she made plans with friends to take in a designer sample sale that was happening about two miles from her house. Her 86-year-old mother had agreed to babysit her 7- and 9-year-old children. But the weather took a frosty turn and threw her plans into a tailspin.

“My mom lives a mile away from me and has always been my most dependable back-up babysitter for weeknights, but when the snow started falling, I knew that I could not let her get on the road in that weather,” said O’Conner, who lives in Bethesda. “It was for her safety and everybody else who’d be on the road. Unfortunately, she kept insisting that she would be fine and even became a little peeved that I was suggesting that she was too old. Too keep her off the road, I had to concoct a story about one of my friends getting sick and canceling the plans.”

The thought of suggesting to a loved one that it’s time to give up their car keys can be daunting. Dombo says that there are steps that one can take to make such a conversation less intimidating. “This is a very sensitive issue for many people, because it means dramatic change in lifestyle and having less control over ourselves,” she said. “It’s important to be respectful and not talk to them like they are a child. Give specific examples instead of making general statements and try not to have the conversation alone. It’s usually more effective to have the conversation with a group of family members.”

Demonstrating an understand of the what reduced driving means is also important, suggests Goldstein. “You must show empathy,” she said. “This type of transition can lead to depression for some seniors. Offering alternatives like gift certificates for cab rides or Uber or Lyft can be good. Come up with a plan to remain socially active and to run errands and get to doctor’s appointments. This type of life transition is not easy, but it is possible to live a rich, full life without a car.”

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