In case you’ve been wondering where I’ve been…
I’ve been driving MYSELF crazy!
These past several weeks have been quite a blur – the view from my car window as I drove back and forth to North Carolina. Last I wrote I was trying to juggle all of the needs of those around me and most recently being the family caregiver on call for my mother who is recovering from surgery. (Click here to catch up on my story “Stuck in the middle like you”). For the past month, at least once, sometimes twice a week, I have been making the two-hour drive to North Carolina to be with my mother, keep her company, run her errands and drive her to doctor’s appointments.
When I would return home my 16 year old would be anxiously waiting for me to take him out driving. So needless to say I’ve been very consumed by the subject of driving lately. From those just starting to drive and those slowing down or stopping. As I spent all of those hours in the car it has reminded me of those family caregivers who are concerned about their aging parent or spouse driving. So I thought I would summarize a previous blog I wrote on this very topic.
Wondering if your elderly father should drive?
When is it time to stop someone from driving or should you intervene at all? As a family caregiver you might be the one who has to make this very difficult decision. So how do you know? Is there an age when someone is too old to drive? Maybe, but age alone is not the biggest risk factor in one’s ability to drive. But before we go into that let’s remember what driving means to all of us.
Driving = Freedom for everyone
As I sit in the car with my son, trying to stay calm as he drifts dangerously close to the parked cars on my side of the road, I know how excited he is to get his driver’s license. I remember the feeling myself, the sense of freedom and independence it gave, being able to go when and where I wanted or needed to go. No more waiting for someone to take me somewhere or to pick me up. As a parent I can’t wait for my son to get his license so I can quit my job as his personal chauffeur.
Alternatively as I care for my mother who is unable to drive while she is recuperating I know how frustrating it is for her to ask others to do her errands and then wait for it to get done. At 92 she is still a very good driver but I know she is dreading the day she won’t be able to drive at all.
So as you think about limiting or eliminating your loved one’s ability to drive remember that you are not just taking away keys and assuring their personal safety but you are also limiting both theirs and your autonomy and independence. Making this decision for someone else has the potential to create a significant amount of conflict and should be done so cautiously and only as a last resort. It is a difficult decision that is best handled as compassionately as possible.
Normal Aging and Driving
Most people as they age become aware that they are not able to drive as well as they used to. It becomes more difficult to see at night and driving is much more stressful. Most aging adults will naturally limit or reduce their driving as a way to reduce the stress. And most people decide to stop driving on their own. They have had one too many accidents or close calls to feel comfortable behind the wheel. So many will naturally limit themselves to only driving when necessary, at certain times or only to known places. But some drivers seem to be less aware and continue to drive long after they are able. And those are the ones of greatest concern to family caregivers.
So how do you know if and when you need to intervene for your loved one? To begin with let’s discuss why people who were previously very good drivers are now a cause for concern. There are two factors that influence a person’s ability to drive safely:
(1) Changes in physical ability
(2) Changes in cognitive or mental ability
Understanding and identifying the difference is the key to deciding if, when and how you might need to intervene.
Normal aging diminishes a person’s physical ability to drive. As we age our eyesight weakens, it diminishes our range of vision and peripheral vision is narrowed. Our ability to judge distances and “see” as wide a field becomes impaired as our field of vision shortens (front/back) and narrows (side to side). Most times these changes occur slowly over time so a person adapts and adjusts their driving skills to meet the changing physical ability. Many people will naturally reduce the amount of driving at night or drive more slowly and cautiously in rainy or low light conditions. Sometimes they are less aware of the changes and are caught by surprise. They find it more difficult to merge or change lanes and notice that the “blind spots” have gotten larger. Left hand turns become more stressful because it is more difficult to accurately judge the distance and speed of the oncoming traffic. They experience an increase in the number of accidents and fender benders while driving in parking lots or in reverse due to misjudging distances or not seeing obstacles.
One of most significant impact aging has on driving is in slower reaction times. As our brains age the ability to respond quickly tends to diminish. So many find that they are unable to stop in time, merge or change lanes quickly or easily, make turns either across traffic (left hand turns) or into traffic (from a parking lot onto a busy road). In a crisis, a driver might accidentally accelerate rather than stop because they couldn’t switch their foot to the brake pedal quickly enough.
So how do you know when you as the caregiver need to intervene? Begin by observing their behavior to gauge if they are aware that driving is becoming a problem for them. Generally you do not need to do anything if you notice that your loved one is already making changes to their usual driving habits. Most people decide to stop driving on their own when they no longer feel safe. Working through alternatives and finding compromises is the best approach. Slowly reducing their need or opportunity to drive will also help alleviate the sense of loss they will feel and may be a more accepting of a compromise than not driving at all.
Clear thinking adults are aware that their physical abilities are diminishing and will naturally change their behavior and routine to maintain their personal safety.
Memory loss and impaired judgment will significantly impact a person’s ability to drive. Someone who has even the earliest signs of cognitive impairment or memory loss may still be physically able to drive but may get lost often or are easily confused. Some people in early stages of cognitive decline are aware of their decreasing ability to drive. They find themselves frightened and confused when they are lost or cannot find their way to usual places even back home. While they may physically be able to drive well it is best that they not drive alone, to new places or drive far distances. These individuals will usually stop driving on their own or with very little prompting if they are aware of the problem.
But some are unaware of their cognitive decline at all and least of all its impact on their driving ability. These circumstances create a much more challenging situation for family caregivers. Any lack of awareness of their diminished capacity (either physical or cognitive) is a warning sign that a caregiver needs to intervene in a more assertive manner. Their inability to be an active part of the solution requires more creative interventions to avoid conflict and confusion.
No one agrees to a solution to a problem they don’t know or believe they have.
Convincing someone who is consistently forgetful or easily confused that they cannot drive will only work for a limited time – until they forget the conversation. Someone who is unable to think logically and in the present moment is unable to understand the consequences or process an alternative solution. In these cases a caregiver must protect their loved one and find a way to take away the car or the keys.
The inability to drive is a significant loss that most people fear more than any illness or symptom. The loss of independence and self-determination can have a devastating impact on a person’s mental and emotional well-being. Families and caregivers should move cautiously and compassionately as they help someone through this difficult life transition.
I hope you found this helpful
Please be sure to send your comments and questions to me using the comment link, by email at Patricia@SojournerVideo.com or on my Facebook page The Sojourner Project.
So until next time – take care of yourself and know that there is
…help for the journey