When Driving Becomes Dangerous: How to Have “The Conversation” With Mom or Dad
“Mom and Dad, I think it’s time for you to stop driving.”
Did the bottom of your stomach drop out just reading that phrase?
No one wants to have the “give up the keys” conversation. Not the parent, not the adult children, not the friends and not the rest of the family. After all, a car symbolizes freedom. Independence. The ability to go where you want, when you want. But unfortunately, there may come a time when it just isn’t safe for your parent to continue driving.
We’ll come right out and say it: it’s a sucky situation. And it more than likely is not going to be an easy thing, nor will it happen overnight. It will take time, patience, understanding and compassion on all sides (and maybe a few tears). Before you dive into the dilemma, here are some things to think about as well as some ways to approach the scenario in a productive way.
Before the Conversation
First of all, there’s no one particular age when someone should have to stop driving. In fact, there are seniors in their 80s, 90s and some in their 100s who are still driving safely and have no issues whatsoever. In fact, seniors aren’t even the generation who’s most accident-prone. (That belongs to the age 15-through-19 group.)
So before you even decide to have “the talk,” take some time to figure out if your parents really need to give up the keys, or if there are adjustments that can be made to help them drive more safely. For example, if their vision is going, would new glasses or surgery help? Would limiting driving to daylight hours be a good course of action? Can you add a booster seat to the car so he or she can see over the dashboard?
However, if your parent is actually going blind, or doesn’t have the physical ability to get in and out of a car or has health issues like dementia, their impairments may affect their ability to drive too greatly. A good way to determine your parents’ ability to drive is to ride along with them on occasion and see how they act and react. Check the car from time to time to see if any new dents or dings show up with regularity. And, finally, be ready to act if and when the situation calls for it.
Having the Conversation
No one likes to be told what to do. And nobody wants to have someone else make a unilateral decision for them. So as tempting as it might be to just come out and tell your parent they need to stop driving, that’s just not gonna work. Trust us.
The best thing to do is to involve your parent in the decision and consideration. In fact, it might be a good idea to start talking about this waaaaaay before any symptoms of driving issues come up. That way, decisions can be made together well in advance, which may help to reduce drama and stress.
Even if you aren’t able talk about it in advance, make sure your parents have a say when you do have the conversation—and be prepared for them to say it. You may run into resistance, or sadness, or denial or any other myriad of emotions. It’s important to address all these feelings because, in a sense, this is a little death for them and they’ll have to go through the stages of grief.
Here are some things to keep in mind when speaking to your parent:
Be honest. If you’re concerned for their safety, tell them so. Honesty is always the best policy, and it may be the key to help your parents recognize the severity of the situation.
Don’t tell them how to feel or what to do. Again, no one likes to hear the words “you should…” Practice active listening and remember to use qualifiers like “I feel” and “If it were me” to keep from getting naggy.
Help them think through the options. Your loved one might give reasons as to why he or she can’t stop driving, like her weekly bridge club or his physical therapy appointments or anything else. Discussing options, like carpooling or public transit options, can help everyone involve realize that giving up the keys doesn’t mean giving up the things they love to do.
Let them lead the conversation. Your parent may start reminiscing, and you could be tempted to get the conversation back on track. Instead, go with it. This is a form of processing, and having you listen and participate can help the senior reach acceptance (eventually).
Don’t be afraid to pause the conversation. This is an emotional topic, and it’s okay to not get everything wrapped up after one discussion. Depending on how you or your parent feel, it’s fine to “put a pin in it” and revisit the talk at a later time.
After the Conversation
One of the best ways for your parent to feel comfortable with giving up driving is for someone—whether family or friends—to become involved in their lives. Offer to drive them to an activity or event, or work to get Joan or Betty to carpool (or, even better, show your parent how to hail an Uber). Help them find the bus routes, and ride it with them to make it more comfortable. And be sure to check in on them often, to help them feel like they’re not isolated from the world.
Growing old, as they say, ain’t for sissies. But with caring support and understanding, you can help your parents—and yourself!—have these hard conversations. While it’s not something anyone looks forward to, facing the situation realistically and providing options to keep him or her active will help all involved accept this new normal.