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Special Report: When to talk to elderly loved ones about giving up driving

GERMANTOWN, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Arline is a senior citizen living in Germantown. As she has gotten older, she has made some changes to her driving habits.

“About a year and half ago, I decided I didn’t want to drive at night anymore,” she said. “I talked to my children and they said that’s a good idea.”

In addition to talking to her children about her driving abilities, Arline says every so often they join her for a ride to see how she is driving.

“Sometimes you don't realize if you have some issue,” Arline said.

But many elderly drivers aren't having this conversation with loved ones.

According to AAA nearly 83 percent of older drivers say they have never talked to a family member or a doctor about their safe driving ability.

"By having these conversations early you are allowing that older driver to actually play a role in the planning process so there isn't an element of surprise when it actually comes time to give up the keys," Tamra Johnson with AAA, said.

Lucille Nowakoski said she is prepared if she will ever need to stop driving.

“I’m mapping out a course in case that ever happens…where I will live and how close I will be to everything, so that I can fully enjoy the rest of my life,” Nowakoski said.

For many, making the decision to stop driving is not easy.

“Giving up the keys to the car is the hardest thing that they'll ever do because this is our independence,” Marie Renn, AARP Safe Driving Instructor, said.

According to TRIP, a national transportation research group, more than a quarter of all of the deadly crashes in Wisconsin involve senior drivers.

“When we have to see things and connect the brain to when to put our foot on the brakes all of that slows down as we get older,” Renn said.

In 2016, 159 Wisconsin fatal crashes involved at least one driver that was 65 or older, and 95 of those killed were drivers over the age of 65.

“Our bones our more fragile and we don't heal as well,” Renn said.

Renn held a safe driving course at the Germantown Senior Center in early-October. She said there is no magic age when seniors should stop driving, it all depends on the individual.

State Senator Fred Risser is 92-years-old and is still driving.

He does not have to get his licensed renewed until he turns 95 because of Wisconsin's 8 year renewal requirement that does not take age into account.

“That means if you have a license at age 90 you're good until 98 regardless of what you're eyes are, regardless of anything else,” Senator Risser said.

Other states in the Midwest are much stricter on seniors when it comes to renewing driver’s license.

For example, 75 year old drivers in Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa and many other Midwest states have to get their license renewed more often than in Wisconsin.

Senator Risser tried to change this.

In 2013, he proposed a bill that would have required people over 75 in Wisconsin to get their eyes checked every four years. The bill didn't make it out of committee.

“I was told certain aging groups, like the AARP, had expressed concern unofficially that it would stigmatize an older person,” Risser said.

But during our interview, he said he may introduce the bill again.

Until then, drivers will have to decide for themselves and with their loved ones on when's the best time to hang up the keys.

“Sit down with your mother and father and say how do you feel about driving?” Arline said. “Do you still enjoy it? Do you feel nervous? I've noticed that you've had an issue with this or that don't you think it might be time for you to think about giving it up?”

This conversation is not always easy or comfortable.

Experts say don't wait for a crash to happen before talking to a loved one about their driving ability. And when you do sit down and have the talk, don't jump to conclusions.

Some also suggest putting yourself in their shoes, and try giving up driving for a day to see what it's like.

AAA suggests:

Plan Ahead

Because driving is closely tied to freedom and independence, acknowledging the possibility of one day being unable to drive is difficult for almost anybody. This is why it’s important to prepare for a conversation about safe driving.

  • Do your homework. Complete the following checklist before initiating a conversation about safe driving with an older adult.
  • Conduct a “ride-along” with the driver. Join the driver as a passenger during several trips and note your thoughts and observations – both positive and negative. Try to ride with the older adult at different times to get a good sense of driving performance under a variety of road conditions.
  • Consult those with special knowledge. Discuss your concerns with a law enforcement officer, an elder-law attorney or a geriatrician about any concerns and seek advice tailored to your specific situation before you have a conversation about safe driving. Collect information about local options for a professional driving assessment and driver retraining courses.
  • Understand the older adult’s transportation needs. Determine the purposes for the older adult’s driving. Consider medical appointments, social obligations, religious commitments, shopping and community activities. Doing so will help you to appreciate how important driving is to the senior driver and assist you in finding transportation alternatives.
  • Determine local transportation services. Generate a list of different services available, the cost to use them, scheduling, phone numbers and so forth to share when you initiate the conversation about safe driving. Try taking trips on several of these services, so you understand how to use them and whether or not they are convenient and easy to use and access.
  • Write it all down. Once you’ve completed your research, organize the information. Use it to develop an action plan for your conversation about safe driving. Then, after you have had a productive conversation, document the plan you and the older adult mutually agreed to pursue and review it together for accuracy.

Caring.com suggests:

Make sure your expectations are realistic. If you assume that one discussion will neatly resolve the matter, you're bound to be disappointed. Given how charged the driving issue is, you need to think of this as a process that will take some adjustment and fine-tuning. Consider this a preliminary discussion only; a way to get the issue out on the table so it can be dealt with openly.

Consider your own role. Remember that it's not up to you to convince the person your caring for to immediately cease driving, even if you think this is the best course of action. Unless the driver has dementia or is otherwise incapacitated (see below), it's best to respect his right to make decisions about his life -- with your input and support.

Consider temporarily giving up the car yourself. Elizabeth Dugan, a geriatric researcher who wrote the book The Driving Dilemma, reports that a colleague stopped using his car for two weeks before talking to his elderly father about driving safety. His carless weeks gave him firsthand experience of the inconvenience and lack of mobility that his father was going to have to endure. You may not want to give up your car before you talk with an older adult, but you should give some thought to the emotional and practical issues he'll face when he gives up driving.

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Plan your discussion for a quiet time of day. Find a time when you and the driver you're concerned about are both relaxed and rested and no one has any deadlines or commitments pending.

For more tips: https://www.caring.com/articles/when-should-seniors-stop-driving & https://seniordriving.aaa.com/resources-family-friends/conversations-about-driving/plan-ahead/

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