Caring for an aging parent requires quite a few uncomfortable conversations. Discussing finances, health care options and housing decisions can feel like a role reversal that no one asked for. But according to a survey done by Pfizer and Generations United about 10 years ago, those aren’t the toughest things to discuss. The toughest thing is telling an aging parent when they should stop driving. 

“Respondents said the hardest conversation to have with elderly parents is telling them to stop driving and hand over their car keys – more difficult (39 percent) than talking to parents about their final wishes or wills (both 24 percent),” the survey found.

Seniors are often reluctant to give up driving because it means sacrificing their sense of independence and control, something they’ve enjoyed for decades. If you can’t drive yourself to run errands or meet with friends, you are more likely to feel isolated, trapped or like a burden to others. For aging parents who are already experiencing loss of control over other areas – their physical health, for example – this could seem like the final nail in the coffin.

Most people eventually relinquish the keys, but it doesn’t make approaching the topic any easier to face. If you suspect that a parent is no longer safe behind the wheel, there are a few ways you can help ease them through this difficult transition.

Get in the Car With Them

The first step to telling an aging parent when to stop driving is to do a little reconnaissance. Without making it too obvious, observe your parent while driving. Pay attention to whether they can follow all the rules of the road without prompting. Notice how they handle turning, changing lanes, maintaining safe speed and being alert to oncoming traffic. Then consider how you feel while you’re in the car with them; do you feel confident they can get you (or themselves) somewhere safely? 

If you can, take actual notes so you can remember all the things you noticed, as they could be useful when the conversation occurs. Try not to weaponize these points (that will only make them defensive), but being able to cite a specific occurrence (like, “you hit the curb twice when you drove me to the supermarket”) will make it harder for them to dismiss.

Take Time to Prepare 

Planning ahead will serve you well. When you start to feel the conversation is necessary, decide who would be the best person to deliver the message – whether it’s you, a sibling or their spouse. The discussion should be one-on-one so that they don’t feel like they’re being ganged up on. And try to choose a time when they are relaxed and comfortable.

It will also be helpful if you have already researched alternative modes of transportation that you can present them with during the discussion. Depending on where you live, they could utilize public transportation or ride-hailing options like Lyft or Uber, or get rides from friends, family and volunteer drivers from senior centers or religious and community service organizations. It would also be a good time to help them get familiar with services like Amazon, Instacart, and Grubhub.

Be Patient But Persistent

The idea of accepting a major lifestyle change will take your parent some time to get used to. They most likely won’t hand over the keys the first time you raise the topic, so be prepared for a long-term approach. You should also be braced for them to react how anyone would when they’re told they can’t do something; they might be frustrated, defensive or in complete denial. Try to keep calm and keep your emotions in check as much as possible.

Sometimes it is helpful to suggest small, incremental changes in their driving habits first, instead of going cold turkey. You might point out that they have a hard time driving at night, for example, or in inclement weather, and offer alternatives they could rely on during those times. If the transition to only driving part time goes smoothly and they see that they can get around without a car, they may be more willing to stop driving altogether.

Be Sympathetic, But Point Out Consequences

It’s important to communicate that you know you aren’t just asking your parent to give up their keys; you are asking that they radically alter their lifestyle. But counter that point with the possible consequences their unsafe driving could have. The likelihood of dying as the result of a car accident sharply rises after the age of 65 (mostly because older bodies can’t withstand hard impacts as well as younger bodies). And unsafe driving could affect more than just them; ask your parent if they would be willing to accept the potential consequences – physically, mentally, morally and monetarily – of hurting (or killing) someone else.

Bring In the Experts

Your word may not be enough to convince your parents to stop driving. (After all, they changed your diapers, who are you, the driving expert now?) If that’s the case, it might be time to have a professional tell them that they may no longer be safe on the road. There are a few ways you can go about doing this. You could suggest they take a refresher course for seniors through their local AAA or DMV. Or, in some states a doctor can request that the DMV test a driver again if they have concerns about their ability to be behind the wheel. An occupational therapist can also evaluate your parent and offer a medical perspective. They could suggest modifications to help them drive more safely, like larger mirrors, seat cushions or hand pedals. (Or they may recommend that your parent stop driving altogether.)


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