Driving Troubles?

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At some point in our lives, it is almost inevitable that we will experience some level of stress when it comes to our parents’ driving abilities as they age. I won’t say that mine aren’t questioned every day by my husband right now, but I’m talking about when you start to question whether or not it is safe for mom or dad to continue driving. This is a really difficult discussion to have and an even more difficult decision to make – and quite frankly, it’s a decision that may have to be made regardless of whether or not mom or dad agrees with it.

Although some people, like my grandfather, are totally open and honest about their level of comfort and safety behind the wheel, others are not quite so open and honest. My grandfather had macular degeneration, so early on he stopped driving at night, but as his vision loss declined, he determined that he would stop driving all together. This is not an easy decision to make, since driving is one of the key factors to maintaining ones independence. The difficulty of the decision was compounded by the fact that my grandmother never learned to drive, so not driving meant that my grandparents would become totally dependent upon my mom and my aunt for transportation to and from doctor’s appointments, the grocery store and church.

Because driving vs. giving up driving is so very complex, I wanted to talk about how to start this whole process of deciding what to do. If you are starting to question your parents’ abilities to drive, it is most likely for good reason: it is appropriate to be concerned for their safety and well-being as well as the safety and well-being of others on the road.

If your suspicions are telling you that something is wrong, I’d like to suggest that you head out to the car and do an inspection. Check the registration, the inspection sticker, the oil change sticker and the gas. Are they all up to date? Next, talk a walk around the outside of the car and look for any dents, dings, scratches etc. on the doors, the bumper, the hood and the rims. These little checks are doing a few things to build our case:

  1. They are looking to make sure that higher level functioning skills, such as remembering the date, coordinating the date with the service that needs to be performed to the car and scheduling and following through with an appointment are taking place.
  2. They are checking to see how your parents are navigating their car on the roads. If there are scratches, dents, dings and more on the car, it is likely that they aren’t all due to other drivers and that something is causing these damages to the car.

If you’ve found anything during your search, I recommend scheduling a visit to the eye doctor for your parents. Many changes that can take place in the eye of an older adult including macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts and even diabetes can affect a person’s vision. It’s also possible that a person’s vision has declined and a stronger prescription may be the solution. Depth perception is extremely, extremely important in driving so it’s imperative that the Dr. examines that as well.

Next, it’s important to schedule an appointment with the audiologist. We may not think so, but hearing is important while driving. If we are swerving over the lanes and someone happens to be in the other lane, they’re most likely going to beep. If we can’t hear that beep, there may be a little fender bender. If we’re sitting at a red light and that light turns green and we don’t move quickly enough, you can be sure that the person behind you is going to beep. While it may not be the absolute most important sense to use while driving, it certainly has a purpose.

A physical with the family doctor is never a bad thing. It’s good preventative maintenance and the more comfortable a patient feels with his medical provider, the more likely he or she will be to share important changes he is experiencing. When a doctor regularly sees his patient, he is much more likely to pick up on more subtle changes and act to correct them sooner than if the patient waits years between visits. Having the physical will allow the doctor to get a good overall picture of your parents’ health and make suggestions for any follow up visits, blood tests etc. that may need to be completed.

It’s also important to think about health concerns like diabetes. Not only can diabetes cause trouble with vision, but it can also cause neuropathy which can result in the inability to feel the bottom of one’s feet. This can increase the risk of infection due to cuts that can’t be felt and can lead to car accidents if a person can’t properly feel what his or her foot is doing below the steering wheel.

Other factors that can contribute to dangerous driving are memory problems, neurological conditions, arthritis, problems with drinking or drugs – even over the counter drugs and prescription drugs can cause harm if not monitored closely. Memory problems have caused individuals to become lost in their own neighborhoods or end up hours away from home with no idea how to return. If severe enough, memory problems interfere with the way that we see and interpret signs and could lead to something terrible like driving the wrong way down a one way street, or even worse: a major highway. Neurological conditions such as ALS, MS or Parkinson’s can cause someone to be unable to safely handle a motor vehicle. Arthritis can cripple the joints in the hands and cause severe pain and swelling to the point that the person can no longer have a safe grip on the wheel. Although it is not always obvious and we certainly don’t look for it often enough, addiction in the elderly exists and we need to be sensitive to it. If a person is waking up and having a drink to get his or her day started, we have cause for concern and we need to take steps to get the individual help and make sure that he or she is being safely transported somewhere, rather than driving himself. Of course there is the possibility that the older person is using other drugs, such as marijuana or cocaine and these can have negative side effects on driving as well. Over the counter and prescription medications for sleeping disorders can cause daytime drowsiness and cause slowed reaction times, unclear thinking and even pose the risk of a drive falling asleep at the wheel. Of course, a person who is memory impaired may have difficulty managing his or her own medications, so medication errors can cause further problems when driving.

If you’re concerned about your mom or dad being out on the road, it’s time to take some steps to keep them safe. Talking with your parents’ doctor ahead of the appointment to express your concern is helpful. If the doctor is informed, you can work as a team to make sure mom and dad stay safe and are around longer to spoil the grandchildren and send them back home after letting them indulge in chocolate and coffee all afternoon! And don’t forget – as a care manager, I am here to help my clients and their families find the best solutions for their scenarios.