With SMH Geriatric Medicine specialist Alan Grindal, MD
The ability to drive a car is something that many of us take for granted.
Driving becomes second nature, and we don’t always appreciate the amount of work that our brain is doing simply to calculate stopping distance or when it’s safe to make a left turn.
However, the brain is working hard when we drive — and at a pace it can’t keep forever.
“Driving in this day and age requires that people make quick decisions and take quick action,” says Sarasota Memorial neurologist Alan Grindal, MD, who specializes in geriatric medicine and Alzheimer’s disease at our Memory Disorder Clinic. “And as we age, we just slow down.”
Whether the result of a chronic disease, such as Alzheimer’s, or just the product of normal aging — both of which affect motor skills, reaction times and visual acuity — most of us will have to hang up our car keys eventually.
“The vast, vast majority of us will have to give up driving before the end of our lives,” says Dr. Grindal. “It’s something that everyone should plan on.”
Unfortunately, many of us don’t.
Unsafe Driver Red Flags
Worried a love one isn’t able to drive safely? Look for these signs their driving ability may be in decline.
Minor Warning Signs
Driving excessively slow
Unsafe lane changes
Difficulty making left turns into traffic
Moderate Warning Signs
Small dents or scratches appearing on the car / garage
Hitting the curb
Getting honked at often by other drivers
Making passengers nervous
Accumulating tickets and traffic citations
Major Warning Signs
Failure to adhere to traffic signs
Stopping in traffic because they don’t know what to do
Be Proactive. Have The Discussion Early.
Too often, we wait until a friend or loved one’s driving is unsafe to talk to them about stopping driving.
“We put it off until it becomes a crisis,” Dr. Grindal says, “and it creates significant dissension among the family, particularly if it’s not done well.”
But like drafting a will and making end of life preparations, having a discussion about the eventual decision to stop driving is something that all families should do. Not only does this allow the individual to be involved and mentally prepare themselves, but it allows the entire family time to explore driving alternatives and make a plan together.
“These are discussions that people need to have early so that when there are changes, they’re able to deal with them,” Dr. Grindal explains.
The conversation may not be an easy one, but it’s an important one to have nonetheless.
(See below for guidance and resources to help you get the conversation started.)
Make It A Discussion, Not A Demand
No matter when the discussion takes place, it is important that the conversation not look or feel like a confrontation. People often have an emotional attachment to driving — equating it to freedom and independence — and the idea of giving it up could be troubling.
“Independence is something that none of us like to give up,” he adds.
Engaging through a 1-on-1 conversation with a close family member or friend, as opposed to a sudden group intervention, can go a long way toward making the individual feel comfortable talking openly about the topic.
“People often feel much more threatened if they’re surrounded by people telling them not to drive,” says Dr. Grindal, but an intimate conversation with an empathetic ear makes the experience a discussion, not a demand.
Avoid Accusation & Blame
Another way to prevent the conversation from becoming a confrontation is to avoid talk that implies blame or bad driving accusations.
After all, says Dr. Grindal, it’s not a matter of someone being wrong, but of everyone being safe. “This is something that needs to be handled very carefully and very patiently,” he advises.
There are several ways to approach the conversation in a non-confrontational way:
- Emphasize their safety in the discussion by expressing your concern as concern for their wellbeing.
- Focus on the facts of the situation and the consequences moving forward, not blame for the past.
- Assure them that you are on their side and will help them figure out a plan to move forward together.
Another effective strategy can be to frame the discussion with your own worries about driving. If one side of the conversation admits to having concerns about their ability to react in an emergency, such as a child running out into the street, then the other person may feel more comfortable acknowledging their own fears and experiences too.
Call in a Professional
If someone’s driving has become unsafe, but they refuse to stop driving, there are alternatives to hiding the keys or disabling the vehicle.
In Florida, individuals can anonymously report medically unsafe drivers to the state’s Medical Review Program, under the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Reports are reviewed and, if deemed necessary, the state can revoke that person’s license, permanently or temporarily. This ruling can be appealed by the driver.
Need more help to start the conversation with a loved one? Check out the below resources for guidance and help planning life after driving.
Sarasota Memorial’s Driver Evaluation and Rehabilitation program — Once referred by a physician, the driver undergoes a roughly 2-hour evaluation. Results are reviewed by the referring doctor, who then recommends rehab or vehicular modification to preserve driving; daytime-only driving; or hanging up the car keys.
‘We Need To Talk’ — This free, online AARP seminar walks you through assessing a loved one’s driving skills and broaching the conversation productively.
Seniors Bluebook — This website is full of resources and services for seniors in the Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties. Local resource specialists also are available via phone, free of charge.
The Department of Elder Affairs — This statewide agency is dedicated to helping Florida seniors with everything from legal representation to transportation needs. The Elder Help Line is available at 1-800-963-5337.
As a Sarasota Memorial copywriter and wordsmith, local journalist Philip Lederer crafts a variety of external communications for the healthcare system. He earned his Master’s degree in Public Administration and Political Philosophy from Morehead State University, Ky.