If you’ve ever had to talk to a parent, uncle, grandparent or older neighbor about their need to stop driving, you know what a difficult conversation that can be.
AGE of Central Texas is offering a free class for adult drivers and their caregivers Saturday to talk about when it’s time to put down the car keys and how to have that conversation.
Megan Frazier, an occupational therapist who started the company Functional Stability and Mobility, homeanddriving.com, will be sharing her tips at that event, but we asked her to give us some of the warning signs that the conversation needs to be had and how to approach that conversation.
Frazier evaluates adults usually after a doctor has recommended an evaluation. She suggests that family members who think their loved one needs an evaluation get the family doctor on board first.
Often, she’ll have a couple of conversations with the family before the evaluation. “The family is super anxious about it,” she says. “It’s very emotional.”
Her evaluation costs $400 and isn’t covered by insurance.
She goes to the person’s home and evaluates them first for things like strength, balance, reaction time and cognitive skills.
Then she gets in the car with them. She has a driver’s education-type vehicle with an extra set of brakes and accelerator on the passenger side. She’ll take them on about an hour’s drive around familiar roads. If they are doing something dangerous, she can hit the brakes or accelerate if need be. Sometimes she has to grab the wheel and guide them out of danger.
If there’s been something like a stroke, she can work on skill development to get them back in the car safely. Sometimes in the case of dementia or progressive Parkinson’s disease, it would be difficult to develop skills. She would have to let them know that they no longer can safely operate a car.
Instead of thinking about taking keys away, she likes to think of it as driving retirement, and it’s something that you can start planning for before it happens. If you no longer could drive a car safely (or just didn’t feel comfortable driving at night or in Austin traffic), how would you get around? Maybe it’s that you ease into taking a ride-hailing service or a taxi or finding rides with friends.
“Everyone should be thinking about this problem,” she says. That includes the 40-year-old and the 50-year-old. It shouldn’t just be the 80-year-old, she says.
Having a plan in place and the conversation before it’s time makes it easier. Also, having a plan for what to do with the car can help make that transition easier. If there’s someone they know who could use the car, like a grandchild, that might make the driver more amenable to retirement.
Frazier offers these signs that conversations need to be had about driving with a loved one:
They are getting lost more frequently.
They can’t find their car in the parking lot. We all do that sometimes, but with them, it’s more than one or two times.
There are dents or dings in the car.
There are scratches or dents in the wood around the garage.
In the garage, there’s evidence that things have been pushed away by the car.
The mailbox has been hit.
They’ve had a number of accidents or near-misses.
Frazier also finds signs that have nothing to do with the car:
They are not able to manage their own medications.
They are not cooking or are forgetting to turn off the stove.
Their house is in disarray.
They are not managing simple tasks.
They are falling down repeatedly. People who are falling often are 40% more likely to get into a car accident, Frasier says. There could be other things going on like blood pressure or a vision problem, or they are getting distracted and are unable to stay focused.
She also asks this question: Do you feel comfortable getting in the car with them or putting a child or grandchild in the car with them?
If you’re seeing these signs, you’re going to have multiple conversations and offer concrete examples like those mailbox dings.
You also can note that they’ve modified how they drive, like not driving at night or using the access road instead of getting on the interstate.
Often people cling to their cars because they don’t want to be socially isolated. Start working on that transition: Use a ride-hailing service to take them grocery shopping and show them how it’s done, or arrange rides for the things they do every week.
Frazier suggests that families find the right person to have the conversation. Perhaps it’s their doctor whom they trust, or it’s a friend or a family member that is a better ally.
Often Frazier will hear the excuse that they have been driving since they were 14. She’ll point out that the roads (hello, MoPac) are not the same as they were when they started driving.
She also will ask them: How would you feel if you hurt or killed someone?
Sometimes with people who have dementia and won’t remember that they shouldn’t be driving, family members will physically remove the keys or disconnect the car battery.
You also can submit a concern about a loved one’s ability to drive to the Texas Department of Public Safety. You have to put it in writing and mail it to Enforcement and Compliance Service, P.O. Box 4087, Austin, TX 78773-0320, or email MAB@dps.texas.gov. Your complaint can be anonymous, but it should have as much information as possible, such as full name, birth date, address and driver’s license number, as well as a detailed explanation
If you’re lucky, you won’t have to have any of these conversations, call for any evaluations or send any anonymous letters. Your loved one will make their own decision before you have to help them make it. And then you can say a big thank you to them. (By the way, thanks, Mom!)