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Discussing driving with your aging parent: How to proceed with care and compassion

Addressing unsafe driving is never easy, but it's even trickier when the driver is your mom or dad. Here, experts offer advice on how to talk to a parent about driving.

Senior father and daughter chatting while driving

For some, cruising solo down the interstate at age 16 was the first true taste of freedom. From cross-country road trips to short joyrides around town, driving a car represents independence and accessible escapism.

But age and declining health often abruptly slam the brakes on this aspect of adult life. Adults above the age of 75 have higher crash rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And due to physical frailty, senior drivers are also more likely to be killed in a crash, according to AAA.

But talking to a loved one about retiring from driving isn’t easy. 

“It’s one of the most difficult conversations someone could possibly have with their parents. There’s a lot of emotion involved,” says Dr. Scott Kaiser, a board-certified geriatrician at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

So what do you do when a parent, perhaps the very one who taught you how to drive, is no longer safe behind the wheel? Below, Kaiser and Edie Weinstein, a Pennsylvania-based licensed social worker who has worked with seniors at home and in nursing homes, weigh in.

How to prepare for the conversation 

If you’re concerned about whether your parent should still be driving, get ready to do some homework. It’s important to first know if your worries are valid.

Do your research

First, says Kaiser, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for a list of 20 warning signs that an aging senior may no longer be safe behind the wheel. Both Kaiser and Weinstein emphasize that age alone is not a reason to ask someone to give up the car keys. Impaired vision, cognition and motor function (physical strength and endurance) are the three most common reasons for unsafe driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

“Don’t confront them about it while you’re driving around, but take note.”

— DR. SCOTT KAISER, A BOARD-CERTIFIED GERIATRICIAN

Gather evidence

Next, look for specific examples that support your concerns. Weinstein says detailed descriptions of your parent’s unsafe driving are more persuasive than sweeping statements. If you don’t regularly get in the car with your parent behind the wheel, Kaiser recommends taking a ride together. Pay attention to wrong turns, signaling errors, erratic lane changes and even whether the driving speed seems unusually fast or slow. 

“Don’t confront them about it while you’re driving around, but take note,” he cautions. “It’s important to stay safe.”

Reach out to other family members

It’s important to form a united front with any partners or siblings who share your concerns. When Pam (last name removed for privacy), who lives in Colorado with her husband, reached out to a local social worker about this issue, she was advised to get on the same page as her husband since tension with parents often leads to marriage tension.

Talk to your partner or siblings about specific safety concerns and how to approach the topic, as this will lay the groundwork for a successful conversation.

How to begin the conversation about driving retirement

Talking to any adult about giving up their driving privileges can be stressful. If possible, choose a family member with a close, respectful relationship to broach the subject. Seniors are nearly twice as likely to listen to driving concerns from their spouses versus their adult children, according to research by The Harford Center for Mature Market Excellence and MIT AgeLab. 

Once you have chosen an initial speaker, pick a time and private place to launch the discussion. The exact nature of your conversation could depend on your relationship and personality. 

Kaiser and Weinstein offer these conversation-starters:

  • How are you feeling about driving?” Opening the conversation with a question like this allows the parent to reveal unspoken concerns about driving. In that scenario, you have an opportunity to come up with solutions together.
  • “I know this is hard to talk about, but I’m concerned for your safety and the safety of others on the road. What are your thoughts?” Though this is a more pointed opener, it keeps the initial focus on the parent’s thoughts and feelings.
  • “What signs would tell you that you should think about giving up driving?” This logical approach puts the onus on the parent and their sense of responsibility.
  • “Do you recall doing ____?” Beginning the conversation with a clear example of unsafe driving helps focus the conversation on the actions rather than the person. 

Regardless of the words you use to voice concern, compassion is essential, says Weinstein.

Tips for a successful conversation with a parent

Kaiser and Weinstein offer these tips to get the most out of your conversation:

Be empathetic.

Talking to a parent about driving is stressful for all parties. Respectfully listen to and acknowledge your parent’s emotions — from sadness to outrage to fear. For many parents, this conversation is a major blow to the ego, says Weinstein.

Stay objective.

At the same time as you acknowledge your parent’s emotions, stay objective about your observations, says Kaiser. The conversation should focus on driving behaviors, not age or personality.

Discuss alternatives for mobility.

“Offer alternatives, such as driving them yourself, or arranging for other family members, neighbors or friends to assist. In some communities, there is paratransit. [City] public transportation is available,” Weinstein says. Kaiser also suggests ridesharing apps.

Be open to other solutions.

Not all situations warrant surrendering the car keys for good. For instance, if a parent is getting drowsy behind the wheel, their doctor might be able to tweak their medications. 

Sometimes adjusting the seat or mirrors can help. Kaiser recommends checking out CarFit, a program that helps older drivers assess and adjust their vehicle for comfort and safety. 

The American Occupational Therapy Association also offers programs for senior driving rehabilitation.

What to do if a parent still refuses to give up the keys 

For some parents, having an adult child intervene only confirms their own worries about driving. But that’s not always the case.

“It’s a much harder situation when someone insists that they have no concerns,” says Kaiser. “They often say, ‘I’ve been driving longer than you’ve been alive.’”

Talk to a medical professional

If a parent refuses to listen to family members’ concerns, enlist the help of their primary care physician, optometrist or occupational therapist. 

A candid talk mediated by a doctor can help many seniors understand the medical and safety issues with erratic driving behaviors, according to Kaiser. He says the tension between autonomy and safety for older adults is a common topic of discussion in his office. 

Schedule a driving reassessment

Weinstein suggests contacting the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) to request a driving reassessment. That’s what Stephanie Watson’s family had to do when recently navigating this situation with her mother-in-law, whose driving had become unsafe after years of debilitating rheumatoid arthritis. 

“My mother-in-law was furious that her children had gone behind her back,” says Watson. The driving issues caused immense tension that was only resolved after her mother-in-law got a serious infection and could no longer physically operate her vehicle. 

Combative tactics, such as hiding the car or forcibly taking the car keys, are not recommended. However, Kaiser says any behavior that puts other people at risk warrants action that prioritizes safety over your parent’s autonomy. 

“More than all sorts of hard conversations between older people and their adult children, driving safety is one of the most difficult, potentially traumatic scenarios. With some foresight and planning, it doesn’t need to be.”

— DR. SCOTT KAISER

Why a preemptive approach is best

Some people will drive until the day they die. Others will need to give up the keys for age-unrelated health reasons such as arthritis, terminal illness or sleep issues.

No one wants to think about the day when they give up their car keys for good. That’s why the experts recommend discussing driving retirement before it becomes a problem. Adults of all ages can benefit from making plans to maintain mobility and independence.

“People consistently report that more than advance directives, more than financial matters, more than all sorts of hard conversations between older people and their adult children, driving safety is one of the most difficult, potentially traumatic scenarios,” notes Dr. Kaiser. “With some foresight and planning, it doesn’t need to be.”

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