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Your Elderly Parents: Should They Still Be Driving?

By Joanna Broder
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

When Nancy Levitt's mother was first diagnosed with dementia 14 years ago at age 78, the doctor told her she could safely drive to familiar places. But Levitt, 61, who volunteers at UCLA's Center on Aging in Los Angeles, was still nervous. Unexplained nicks and dents started appearing on her mother's car. She forgot where she parked. Levitt tried to discuss driving safety with her mother, but she angrily denied there was a problem. Then, she would forget their talks about driving altogether.

At her wit's end, Levitt finally asked her mother's doctor to write to the state, hoping it would revoke her mother's driver's license. But before he could do so, she discovered her mother's car insurance company had canceled her policy, citing five auto accidents. Reluctantly, Levitt took possession of the keys. "I didn't want to because I wanted her to have her independence," Levitt says, "and I didn't want to be the one taking her everywhere, but it got pretty scary."

Where to Start

If your parent shows signs of unsafe driving, start by scheduling an appointment with your parent's doctor, says Joseph Shega, MD, associate professor of medicine in geriatrics and palliative medicine at the University of Chicago. Some pain medications can cause changes in attention span or the issue might be an undiagnosed condition.

The physician might refer your parent to a driver rehabilitation specialist, a certified professional trained to evaluate people with medical issues that can affect driving. Such specialists are employed in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and private driving schools, and their services are typically covered by insurance, says Patrick Baker, a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic Driver Rehabilitation Program. But if an older unsafe driver refuses to stop operating a vehicle, you may have to take drastic steps, like hiding the car keys or writing to the state, Shega says.

Levitt and her mother worked out a solution. Levitt drove her mother some places and hired a driver for a few hours a week. In time the driver became a friend, accompanying her mother to the hairdresser. "And my mother loved it," Levitt says.

How to Tell If Your Parent Is Still a Safe Driver

Although your aging parent might insist that she's still fine to drive, Patrick Baker, a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic Driver Rehabilitation Program, has a few tips on other ways to assess her situation.

Ride along. Go on a drive with your parent and look for problems with specific driving behaviors or tasks, such as difficulty backing up or turning around, or riding the brake and gas pedals at the same time.

Look for patterns. This isn't about changes in driving style but about things your parent should know how to do, such as come to a full stop at a stop sign or check the blind spot before changing lanes. Your mom or dad should also be comfortable driving in unfamiliar places and amid road construction.

Gauge sightlines. How well can your parent see? "You should have about three inches above the steering wheel to view over as a minimum. But as we lose height, sometimes we're too low to actually see where we're going," Baker says.

Reviewed on March 02, 2011

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