Having “The Talk” About Driving with My Dad

Dad was “The Man behind the wheel. From his first Model T that he and his college buddies fixed up in the 1940s to the “ooze-mobile, which I used to call his big white Oldsmobile that hit the pavement like butter, he enjoyed almost 80 years of driving. He was like a race car driver when he whipped around the hills of Athens County, Ohio in our family Chevy Corvair.

In 1989, Mom had a stroke and couldn’t drive anymore so Dad became her trusted chauffeur. In his 70s he still drove from Phoenix to Ohio and back every summer. Dad took care of Mom and their car kept them engaged with the world around them.

The Goyer family on a 1960's trip to visit grandma and grandpa in Indianapolis. The front bumper of our "magic carpet" station wagon that Dad piloted can be seen in the driveway.

Driving is a matter of health, skills and safety – not age, so there is no magic number that tells us it’s time to start modifying driving habits or stop driving all together. For Dad, I noticed about the time he hit age 80 he did what most older drivers do – gradually modified his own driving habits as he got older. Over a period of about 5 years, he stopped driving long distances, across the state or even to downtown Phoenix, where they now live. He began to limit highway driving and stayed home in bad weather. He stuck to mostly familiar places.

I believe conversations about driving should happen early and often – so I rode along with him whenever I visited to casually observe his driving skills and talked things over with him if I had concerns. On the whole, he adjusted driving appropriately and I felt he was driving safely.

When he was 83 he had an accident while driving at night. While the accident wasn’t his fault and he managed it well, the car was totaled – thankfully no one was hurt. We shopped for a new car that would fit him well - easy to handle, comfortable for my Mom and cost-effective for the years he had left behind the wheel. After that, he chose to stop driving at night except around the corner to my sister’s house. He also restricted himself to driving only in their neighborhood.

But then I began to notice dents and scrapes on the car – mostly on the right front bumper. A dent appeared on the right side of the garage door. Bricks on the right side of the driveway were missing. I rode with Dad to the store, and he pulled into a parking space so close to the car on the right that I couldn’t open the passenger side door. The fact that many of these incidents were on the right side of the car was a clue that Dad’s vision might be a problem.

The other factor for Daddy is dementia – probably Alzheimer’s. While his reflexes were still quite good, as the dementia progressed very slowly we knew his ability to make quick decisions while driving could be compromised. Dad had done such a good job of gradually modifying his driving so far, but we felt it was time to talk to him about hanging up the keys.

Picture of Am Goyer with her father behind the wheel testing out a new car.

Shopping for a new car in 2006. Photo courtesy of USAToday.

Each family handles this turning point differently. It’s important to have the right person involved in the conversations about driving. Research indicates that most older drivers would rather talk it over with a spouse or doctor – certainly not a police officer at the scene of an accident! So three years ago, when the time came to have “the talk” with Dad, we decided to ask his doctor to speak with him about his driving.

The doctor wrote Dad a prescription that said “As of (the date) I do not want you to drive anymore. We posted it on the refrigerator.

Despite our discussions about driving in prior years, Dad was angry. And I didn’t blame him. “You mean asking me not to drive AT ALL?! Driving is a very emotional issue because of the memories and experiences attached to it – but mostly because it’s the link to independence and quality of life.

It’s critical to have information about transportation alternatives when asking an older loved one to stop driving, and I told him about some of the services available. But Dad has his own ideas. As soon as we got home from the doctor’s office, he slammed the car door and emphatically exclaimed “Alright, I won’t drive, but if I can’t drive then we are going to move! That’s all there is to it. Your mother and I will NOT be isolated in this house.

That started the search for an older adult community where they could move, get assistance for Mom and have transportation provided. The Big Move followed when we found a senior living community that included free van transportation. But most older adults don’t move – 9 out of 10 want to stay in their homes and many do become isolated and suffer health problems because they don’t have alternate transportation options.

Initially, my parents did use the free transportation from their community to go to some doctor and hair appointments. My sister helped with some transportation before she moved out of state, and I have enlisted my concierge/assistant to help at times. But as their health and mobility have changed, I provide the bulk of their transportation. It is admittedly very time-consuming and increasingly difficult for me to juggle with my work and personal needs. Their doctor appointments are many. Ensuring they have opportunities for socialization and stimulation are equally important.

Recently, I appeared on CBS This Morning and NBC Nightly News, discussing how to have conversations with older loved ones about driving. After showing my parents the video clips, I asked Dad if he missed driving. He surprised me when he said nope – he didn’t really miss the actual act of being behind the wheel. “I miss being able to get in the car and go where I want to go when I want to go there, he said.

I would miss that too.

Have you had a similar talk with your parents or loved one? Tell us below! Click here to get tips on how to approach your parents (or loved one) and other useful hints.