CarFit Can Help Keep Seniors Safe on the Road Longer

Q. My father has had Parkinson’s for five years now. He is a little shaky and is starting to experience some of the mobility and speech problems that are typical as the disease progresses. His mind is as sharp as ever, though, and he still wants to enjoy his retirement while he can.

My dad’s dream is to drive across the country and visit as many cities as possible. He could never do it before because he never had enough vacation time. Now that he is free to do what he wishes with his time, he is anxious to get on the road.

My dad is usually the one in the driver’s seat when we go anywhere and doesn’t like anyone else to drive his car, even my mom. My mother and my sisters and I are concerned that he shouldn’t be driving such a distance (or driving at all, for that matter), with his Parkinson’s symptoms. I know giving up driving altogether will be too much for him to bear right now, especially since he is intent on taking this trip. Do you have any suggestions for what we should do in this situation?

A. According to AAA, senior drivers are among the safest drivers on the road. The reason is that they often reduce their risk of injury by wearing safety belts, not drinking and driving, and by observing speed limits. At the same time, despite being safe drivers, seniors are more likely to be injured or killed in a crash due to age-related fragility. As we age, our ability to drive safely is affected by natural changes to our bodies that occur over time and in your father’s case, his Parkinson’s symptoms.

By 2030, there will be more than 70 million people age 65 and older on the road. However, seniors are outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of 7-10 years! It is understandable that seniors want to stay on the road for as long as possible and maintain their independence. By taking actions to promote senior safety, such as a CarFit inspection that we will describe below, seniors can potentially stay on the road longer, and be safer than ever before.

Enhance Driver Safety with CarFit

Mobility and transportation are of utmost importance to ensuring older adults remain active in the community. Transportation should not be a barrier that strands anyone at home.

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) recommends older adults enhance their safety by participating in a CarFit event to ensure their car’s adjustments are expertly arranged for them. CarFit is a community-based safety program developed by AARP, AAA and AOTA.

At the free CarFit events, occupational therapy practitioners use a 12-point checklist to ensure that each driver’s car is adjusted properly for the best fit, and that the safety features of the vehicle are explained, increasing the likelihood that they are used optimally.

During a CarFit event, volunteers check for:

  • A seat belt that holds the driver in the proper position and remains comfortable while driving;
  • The tilt of the steering wheel and position of the airbag;
  • Plenty of room (at least 10 inches) between the chest and the airbag housed in the steering wheel;
  • A properly adjusted head restraint;
  • A clear line of sight above the steering wheel and dash;
  • Easy access to gas and brake pedals;
  • Properly adjusted mirrors;
  • The ability to see around the vehicle by reducing the driver’s blind spots;
  • The ability to turn the vehicle’s ignition key with ease or operate an ignition system;
  • Easy operation of vehicle controls including turn signals, headlights, emergency flashers, windshield wipers, and the parking brake, among others.

The entire process takes about 30 minutes and is free and confidential. The volunteers at CarFit never judge a person’s driving ability and CarFit staff will not make any changes to your personal vehicle, although they may recommend you make some adjustments to get you the right fit.

For more information about free, 12-point educational programs in your area, visit the online CarFit locator (There is one coming to Vienna, VA early next month!) Hopefully the inspection will help ensure that at least your father’s car is adjusted properly for safe driving!

Having a Difficult Conversation with a Parent About Driving

What if your father really should not be on the road anymore? What’s the best way to have such a difficult conversation with him? Here are some suggestions to help you begin the conversation with your aging parent:

  • Choose the best person to bring up the topic. Would your loved one respond better to a spouse, child, caregiver, or good friend? No matter who is chosen, everyone should be on the same page and reinforce the message of safety while addressing concerns about lost independence and isolation.

Our firm can help you draw up an Advance Driving Directive as part of your incapacity planning documents to name the person that you want to initiate the discussion with you about continued driving (or not) when the time is right. Unlike an Advance Medical Directive, which transfers decision making about medical decisions to the agent at the appropriate time, an Advance Driving Directive does not appoint someone to make the “stop driving decision” for the driver. Rather, it’s about naming whom you would like to have broach this touchy subject with you.

  • Choose the right time. It may be easier to have the conversation after a major event such as an accident or change in health status. However, this does not mean you should wait until a major event occurs to begin the discussion.
  • Don’t be confrontational. Taking a confrontational approach can cause your parent to become defensive. Being supportive and understanding will likely make the discussion easier and result in a better outcome.
  • Use specific examples. Draw on specific instances from your time spent with your loved one driving in the car. Bring up times you were nervous, such as difficulty at a stop sign, with an intersection, or merging lanes. Also bring up any recent accidents or other behaviors that caused concern.
  • Take the focus away from the senior. Some seniors may respond better if a greater focus is put on factors other than the driver’s abilities. For example, if there is an accident (whether it is the senior’s fault or not) an older person may more vulnerable and less able to recover from injury following an accident.
  • Remain calm. Even if your loved one is upset or angry, remaining calm and supportive is important. It’s likely that your parent is dealing with a complicated set of emotions. Getting angry will only make the situation more difficult.
  • Focus on alternatives. Demonstrate that losing the car does not mean losing the ability to travel. Have an easy-to-understand alternative plan of travel that your loved one can review and consider. This can include a schedule of times family and friends are available as well as public transportation options.

Even if the conversation about your parent’s driving is difficult, it is important for you to initiate it. Your parent may not have the courage to self-limit their driving and may need a prompt from you to take that painful step. Your help can keep your parent and others on the road safer!

Planning in Advance for Your Loved Ones

Planning in advance for cessation of driving or other alternatives can help keep you and others safe on the road, so it’s important to be prudent about discussing the subject with your father when the time comes. It is also important to plan for yourself and for your loved ones. If you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning or Incapacity Planning (or had your planning documents reviewed in the past several years), or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, please contact us to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation:

Elder Law Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Elder Law Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Elder Law Rockville: 301-519-8041
Elder Law DC: 202-587-2797

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