From Driver to Passenger: Making the Transition

At 91, Lily Oliver is in better shape than most people half her age. She takes daily walks and eats an apple every morning. She even attends art classes and teaches at the same church school where she has taught reading for 50 years.

Despite her independence and remarkably good health, her daughter-in-law recalls a day last month when Lily offered to drive her home. “She was driving on the wrong side of the road and I had to keep grabbing the steering wheel,” says Sarah Oliver. “When an oncoming vehicle came at us, she just stopped in the middle of the road. It was terrifying.”

Not long after that close call, Lily totaled her third car while turning left onto a busy state highway. Though her family is grateful no one was harmed during the accident, situations like Lily’s are increasingly common. Fortunately though, there are many options for seniors who need help with transportation.


Seniors on the Road

By 2050, the number of senior drivers in America is expected to double. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2012 alone, 4079 people over the age of 70 died in motor vehicle crashes. At impact speeds of 31 miles per hour, a 50-year-old has a 10 percent risk of dying, while an 80-year-old faces a 40 percent risk.

Crash statistics show that seniors have an increased risk of being involved in accidents like Lily’s — especially those that involve left turns across traffic. Such maneuvers require drivers to assess the direction and speed of multiple objects at once.

Along with having more fragile bodies and slower reaction times, many seniors grapple with vision impairments such as cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration. They can also lose the dexterity, strength and size needed to properly control a motor vehicle. Adding to their difficulties, prescription medications and diseases like dementia can lead to confusion and drowsiness behind the wheel.


Is it Safe Drive

“I just want to make sure that my mother and other people on the road are safe,” says Peter Oliver, “but we also have to balance the safety factor with the giving her a purpose factor. Taking away her car keys and limiting her mobility means they she may not be able to drive to school everyday. We’d have to make alternative arrangements and if she can’t go to school everyday, will it take her purpose away — to the point where she starts to decline?”

The concerns outlined by Lily’s son are echoed in the data, which shows that seniors who lose their license can suffer from isolation [SC1]  and a loss of dignity that could lead to depression and other health problems.

While many seniors already limit night driving and travel to just a few places, which in Lily’s case includes church and the grocery store, these precautions are often not enough. According to the Huffington Post, in the past year alone, 14 million Americans have been in an accident caused by an elderly person, and the victims of these crashes are often younger, millennial-age drivers.

While the decision to take mom or dad’s keys away may seem simple, the deliberations can take their toll on families, as members struggle to reach a consensus on what to do.

Forty percent of Americans say they are not comfortable speaking to their parents about their driving. Even among Lily’s four adult children, opinions about their mother’s driving vary. Some have even mapped out alternative routes for her to take that would not involve left turns.


Surrendering the Keys

While 23 percent of Americans believe the DMV should assess senior driving abilities, 30 percent of older Americans prefer that the conversation come from their family members, and only 10 percent say the government should have the final say when it comes to their right to drive.

While physicians and eye doctors have the power to report medical conditions that could impair a senior’s driving abilities, the DMV, the police and family attorneys are other entities with the authority to limit senior driving.

“My mother has been driving to that church school for 50 years and taking away her routine is a huge lifestyle change,” says Peter Oliver. “It’s just heartbreaking to consider taking her keys away because she’s still very vibrant. She walks everyday, she eats all the right things, she’s active in the art community — it’s just so hard to come to the realization that this has to happen.”


Having the Conversation

When it comes to your mom or dad, it’s important to frequently assess their driving abilities. Take regular trips with them to observe their ability to maintain a lane, control the vehicle and handle turns, traffic and other factors. It’s also important to inspect your parents’ cars for any dents and accidents they may not be telling you about.

If you come to the decision that it’s best for everyone on the road if your parent stops driving, it’s important to realize how traumatic this decision will be for your mom or dad. Giving up their ability to drive — to church, to appointments and to the grocery store — represents a huge loss of independence that could trigger anger, disbelief and even depression. That’s why it’s important to reach a voluntary agreement with your mom or dad. State your reasons why they shouldn’t be driving, and reiterate your concern for their safety and the safety of others on the road.


Driving Alternatives

While your mom or dad may not be able to get behind the wheel anymore, your loved one doesn’t have to be housebound. Besides getting rides with friends and family, public transit, para-transit, taxis and ride-sharing apps like Lyft are all great options.

With the knowledge that seniors without cars take 15 percent fewer trips to the doctor and 65 percent fewer trips for social, family and religious activities, Brookdale has partnered with Lyft on a pilot project in select communities so that Brookdale associates can schedule rides on behalf of residents without seniors having to use a cell phone app.

Additionally, living in a Brookdale community is a great way to address the mobility challenges seniors often face. In addition to hosting a wide range of social, religious and healthcare activities and services onsite at the communities, Brookdale also operates a fleet of vehicles to help residents get where they need to go.

When it comes to the tireless Lily Oliver, losing her keys won’t slow her down anytime soon. As her son says with a laugh, “She won’t be driving anymore, but I suspect ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ will still be taking us all for a ride.”

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