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Driving Issues with Elders? Gentle Discussion Tips

December 20, 2010

BOSTON - It's the holiday season, and for many Bay Staters it's the only time all year that the entire family is under one roof. This makes it a prime time to assess an older family member's driving skills and whether it could be time to hang up the car keys.

It's a touchy, yet important, subject, says Jodi Olshevski, a gerontologist with The Hartford, an insurance company that worked with AARP and the MIT Agelab on a study about the issue.

"We recommend that family members get in the car, if they're concerned about either a friend or a relative. They should look for patterns of warning signs - not just whether they're happening, but whether there's an increase in frequency and severity of those warning signs."

The warning signs range from minor to serious. Among them are a decrease in confidence while driving, trouble navigating turns or, of course, failure to stop at stop signs or signals. A list of the red flags, as well as tips on how to broach the subject with elders, are in a free online course called "We Need to Talk," available at www.aarp.org.

Lisa D'Ambrosio, a research scientist with the MIT AgeLab, says a survey of adults showed that one in 10 is concerned about an older family member's ability to drive safely, but more than 30 percent have not addressed it - many for fear of a negative reaction. That fear may be unfounded, she says.

"We've found that most people who have been spoken to about their driving said they actually listened to and followed their family's suggestions. I would say take courage, do your homework, and go ahead and engage in that conversation."

A new law in Massachusetts requires drivers 75 and older to renew their licenses in person and pass an eye exam every five years. It also encourages health care providers to inform the registry when they believe someone is not fit to drive. AARP Massachusetts offers safe driving classes for people over 50, including an online course.

More information is available at http://www.aarp.org/ma or by phone, 1-888-227-7669.

Monique Coppola, Public News Service - MA