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Should Dad still drive?

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Families worried about an aging parent's ability to drive safely can get help from a new guide, "We Need to Talk: Family Conversations with Older Drivers," produced by MIT's AgeLab and The Hartford Financial Services Group.

Based on a two-year study of older drivers' attitudes and driving habits, "We Need to Talk" offers families practical information to help them advise their loved ones on whether it is time to limit or even stop driving.

The study included a nationally representative survey of 3,824 licensed drivers aged 50 and older, in addition to focus groups with older adults who had modified their driving, and interviews with family caregivers of people with dementia. The Hartford and the MIT AgeLab have collaborated on research on older driver issues since 1999.

Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab and co-author of the guide, said that adult children should understand that hanging up the car keys can be devastating for the driver.

"Driving is about more than transportation. It's a symbol of independence and freedom. But having frank conversations about driver safety early on--well before it becomes a problem--can reinforce safe practices without the strain of asking the parent to curtail or stop driving," Coughlin said.

Maureen Mohyde of The Hartford, Coughlin's co-author, emphasizes that age alone is not an indication that a person needs to give up driving.

"As a group, older drivers are typically safe drivers," said Mohyde. "Drivers age 65 and older represent 14 percent of the driving population but just 8 percent of vehicular accidents." She noted that the research found that about two-thirds of older drivers self-regulate, or voluntarily restrict, their driving to avoid night driving, slippery road conditions, rush-hour traffic or other difficult driving conditions.

The guide offers families a multistep approach to crafting candid, effective discussions about older driver safety, from positive conversation starters to advice on which family member should broach the topic. "We Need to Talk" also lists warning signs to watch for, such as riding the brake and hitting curbs. And the guide gives strategies for alternative transportation, testing opportunities, and recommendations on what to do if a parent has dementia or a high-risk driver refuses to stop driving.

If problems arise, the guide's authors urge families to speak openly. According to the survey, 75 percent of the older drivers surveyed said a health change was a legitimate reason for family members to talk to them about their driving; 70 percent said a conversation was warranted if they got lost while driving; 50 percent said a serious accident was an opportunity to start a conversation; and 33 percent said a minor accident or a near miss should trigger a talk.

"Deteriorating health or changes in medication can have a significant impact on one's ability to drive safely. Families should consider it a trigger for discussing potential driving restrictions or even cessation," said Coughlin.

Mohyde emphasized that family support and understanding is paramount in helping a loved one make the transition from driver to passenger.

"Expect to have several conversations and show your concern for your loved one's safety," Mohyde said. "Our research found that more than half of those who had been spoken to about driving said they listened to and followed their families' suggestions."

The 24-page "We Need to Talk: Family Conversations with Older Drivers," is free and available on the web or by writing to The Hartford, "We Need to Talk," 200 Executive Blvd., Southington, CT 06489.

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