Car Talk: How to Have a Caring Conversation About Safe Driving with Your Aging Parent

For teens it’s a given: drive safely or lose the car keys. But if your parents’ driving skills are slipping due to age or infirmity, the conversation can get pretty dicey.

Driving is a mark of personal independence, a way to get around when you want, where you want. Losing the ability to drive can be a serious blow to self-esteem, not to mention a major obstacle to managing on your own. No wonder that any challenge to a parent’s driving abilities can spark serious family conflicts.

But the greater risk, when a parent shows sigs of no longer being in full control behind the wheel, is safety—not only for your parent, but also for any passengers and others on the road.

Taking away the keys is certainly a last resort. In an ideal world, your parent would recognize that he or she really needs to give up the car without any prompting. Between those two poles are a range of options, depending on your aging elder’s specific issues. Chances of a peaceful resolution that works for all will increase if you can broach the issues of safety and “retiring” from driving before there’s a crisis.

Watch for Warning Signs

Seventy-eight is now the average life expectancy for Americans. Even for healthy adults, the ’70s are a decade of increasing physical changes that can affect driving—weakened eyesight, difficulties with night vision, hearing loss, longer response times, declining physical coordination or range of motion, to name a few. Cognitive acuity may begin to slide, evidenced by shortened attention and memory loss.

Among the warning signs that your loved one may be approaching the point when driving has become a safety issue:

  • Unexplained dents or scrapes on the car
  • Getting lost on familiar routes
  • Riding the brake
  • Difficulty turning around when backing up
  • Trouble navigating turns
  • Inability to anticipate a dangerous situation on the road
  • Lateness to events when the individual has always been punctual
  • Switch to new medications that affect alertness and response times
  • Increased irritability or decreased confidence when driving

How to Broach Safe Driving Concerns

So, how to open up the subject without starting World War III? Your best bet is to speak and act with empathy:

  • Share your concerns without criticizing. Explain what you’ve witnessed that has raised concerns for your loved one’s safety and the safety of others. Avoid judging and lecturing. Speak as you would like to be spoken to when it’s your turn to face your driving limitations.
  • Encourage your loved one’s efforts to modify driving. Support any attempt to cut back driving at night or limit long-distance driving. Offer to help with transportation to evening events if your location and schedule allows, or arrange ride alternatives with reliable friends or transportation services. Provide assistance in planning long-distance trips to family events.
  • Accompany your loved one on public transit. Go with Mom or Dad on the bus or subway to get to appointments and help them learn the system. This will also enable you to assess how safe these alternatives actually are for your aging parent.
  • Research ride sharing alternatives. An abundance of options exist that can provide timely, responsive transportation. Ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft, specialized senior group transit, and personal ride services just for seniors are among the alternatives. Find out what’s available and affordable, and accompany your loved one to find the right fit and discover new ways to get around.
  • Help your loved one to analyze cost savings. Maintaining a car is expensive—even if the car is paid for, you have insurance, taxes, gasoline and repairs. It’s possible that taxis or ride sharing services are cheaper over the course of a year than keeping the car. Saving money on transportation can be a compelling reason for your loved one to quit driving.

But what if your parent refuses to consider giving up the keys, despite growing evidence of serious risks? Be compassionate but honest about safety:

  • In case of a minor accident, be candid about what could happen next time. Avoid guilt-tripping (“You could have killed someone!”) but be realistic. Your loved one may not even have been at fault, but his inability to drive defensively or respond in time could cause a serious accident in the future. Speak from the heart about your concerns for your aging parent’s safety and the safety of others.
  • Set boundaries about who can be a passenger. If your loved one’s driving has become too risky, you can calmly but honestly tell her that you no longer feel safe riding with her, or will no longer allow your children to ride with her. It’s a powerful and fair way to get the message across. Safety trumps hurt feelings.
  • Arrange a consult with your loved one’s physician. Shift the conversation to your loved one’s health. It’s best to speak to the physician in advance in order to determine whether he or she is willing to make an unbiased recommendation. You can also request that the physician order an independent driving evaluation.

Sooner than later, self-driving cars may eliminate the need for this difficult conversation. In the meantime, it’s best to discuss the possibilities of giving up the car long before there is a real and present danger. Once you’ve agreed on a plan, put it in writing so all will remember their commitments. An Aging Life Care Professional® can help you to navigate these complex conversations and work out a safe, viable driving solution for everyone involved.

President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified Aging Life Care Manager™. Drawing on more than 35 years of professional experience in aging life care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.

For more on coping with aging, follow us on Twitter: @DeborahFinsALCM.

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Image Credit: Xan Griffin

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