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How to know, address an aging loved one's deteriorating driving skills

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How to know, address an aging loved one's deteriorating driving skills

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part II of a 2-part series on addressing the issue of seniors with deteriorating driving skills. It's part of our ongoing series titled Gray Matters.

MANSFIELD -- The role of being a caregiver will eventually switch as loved ones age. That leaves family members -- often children -- to be in charge. One of the more difficult conversations a child can have with a parent is taking away the car keys.

"I’m a trained aging professional, and I’m not looking forward to having this conversation with my parents," said Teresa Cook, Vice President of marketing and development at the Area Agency on Aging serving northwest Ohio.

Taking the car keys away usually stems from the person getting lost, not remembering directions to places that they normally can navigate routinely, such as home, the grocery store, or a relative's house, said Pam Meyers, program director of the Northwest chapter of the Alzheimer's Association Maumee.

It is a safety issue for the person who is having memory issues as they may end up in an unfamiliar place -- or even far from home.

"Driving with memory issues can also present safety issues for other drivers when a person is speeding, lane control, observing traffic signals and laws," she said in an email. "Poor decisions in these areas can/will cause safety issues for other drivers."

Reed Richmond, an AARP Senior Driving Refresher Course and and a health educator through the Richland County Health Department, said the conversation may not be as daunting as one thinks.

"It's interesting because it varies from person to person," said Reed Richmond, "You may find the senior person in your life is willing to give up driving."

Richmond suggests going at the issue from a softer angle.

"When you know someone is having difficulties driving, you start with 'I' statements rather than 'You' statements," he said. "'I'm concerned or we're worried about your safety,' rather than, 'You're not a good driver.' You want to make sure to listen honestly to their viewpoint and show compassion."

He suggested also making note of positive steps they've taken.

"'Hey it's good that you stopped driving at night,' or 'It's good you've started reducing trips you take.' Compliment the fact that they are already making good choices," he said. "The big thing is that you have to really consider why they need the car."

If there is push-back, perhaps using an outside source could help.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Association offers materials to help caretakers understand where their loved one is at with their driving ability. It also shows how aging can affect driving and what one can do to continue driving safely as you age, such as adapting a vehicle to meet specific needs.

Meyers said using these materials can help create a buffer to keep the aging driver from getting defensive.

"When caregivers/adult children ask 'how do we take the keys away?' one of the tips we give them is start with a conversation with your loved one on how they think their driving ability is? Be prepared the answer may be, just fine. If you know their driving is not fine, then involving a non-family member may be the best approach," Cook said in an email. "Working with their Primary Care Physician, Optometrist or Clergy to talk to your loved one about giving up the car keys takes the pressure off of the family and most often will be better received by the older adult.

"This way you are following the doctor’s orders and it wasn’t you (caregiver) who said mom can’t drive any longer. Remember, no matter how old you are they are still the parent and you are the child. You telling your parent what to do may not be well received. The doctor or caregiver may request a BMV reexamination. The letter from the BMV to the older adult it will say who requested the reexamination."

Richmond pointed out seniors living in rural areas such as Bellville, Lucas and Butler or Shiloh may be more dependent on driving because of a lack of public transportation.

"I know from experience with my own in-laws, they are very reluctant to give up driving," he said. "Pick your rural area, you don't have that many transportation options. Usually there is not a taxi cab you can call. Sometimes there is an Uber driver, but again, that's limited.

"When you are talking about giving up your driving, you are talking about giving up your freedom. You have to start making arrangements to get where you'd like to go. They've been self-reliant for so long what do they do?"

Richmond suggests having a plan in place before the keys are hung on the key peg for the last time.

"Let them know someone is willing to drive them," he said. "Drive them to appointments, get groceries, go to the pharmacist.

"What are the resources? Our AARP class is about making those decisions. What kind of things can you do? What kind of travel options do you have? Is there a church group that can pick you up and drop you off?"

Depression has been reported as a growing factor when seniors give up their driving freedom.

"Even just to stop in and say, 'Hey, do you want to go on a trip somewhere?' even downtown or to the shopping center. If they do become house bound, they tend to get sour. That's a big concern," Richmond said. "There's no doubt there's a lot of truth to that -- you used to have that independence and now you don't. You can't go places when you need to go.

"I would caution people before they take the keys away, are you going to be able to do some of the driving for the person? One of the ways to avoid the depression is if you're available on a weekly basis."

This Solutions Journalism story is brought to you in part by the generous support of our Newsroom Partners: Spherion, Visiting Nurses Association, PR Machine Works, Nanogate/Jay Systems, DRM Productions, OhioHealth Mansfield Hospital, Richland Bank, Mechanics Bank, Area Agency on Aging, and many others. To learn more about Solutions Journalism at Richland Source click the "About Solutions Journalism."

Staff Reporter

Noah Jones is host to The Open Mic Podcast -- available on Apple Podcasts! He is the crime, education and music reporter for Richland Source. He is a native of St. Louis, Missouri and a giant Cardinals fan.