Family Conversations About Driving – A Few Tips

I recently appeared on CBS This Morning and NBC Nightly News to discuss having conversations with older loved ones about driving. I received many comments and questions about this hot topic. So many of us are dealing with this issue with our parents. In response to these questions and in follow up to my post about my conversations with my Dad about his driving, here are a few tips about how to talk with your older loved ones about this touchy subject.

AARP has a great free online seminar, We Need to Talk, which walks caregivers through the steps of having these important conversations with their older loved ones about driving. I’ve gone through the seminar and it’s very helpful – highly recommend it!

Remember: It’s all about safety. Safe driving is a matter of health and skills – not age.

  • >Try approaching your parents this way: “I know you don’t want to hurt anyone else much less yourself, and I know how terrible you would feel if you did hurt someone. I love you and I don’t want you to get hurt either. How can I help you plan for modifying your driving habits or not driving at all?

  • Older drivers usually self-regulate and modify their driving habits for safety. Validate good choices and reinforce gradual modification over time.

  • Suggest they refresh their driving skills. There are many programs to choose from, including the AARP Driver Safety Program that also provide materials and tools to self-evaluate driving fitness.

Watch for signs that it’s time to have a conversation about modifying driving habits or hanging up the keys.

  • Monitor their driving; ride along with them – then you’ll have facts, personal observations and specific comments, not generalizations or vague worries to discuss.

  • Check out AARP’s list of the Top 10 Signsthat it’s time to limit or stop driving. These are things to look for when you observe your loved one’s driving.

Have the conversations about driving early and often – before a crisis occurs.

  • Be respectful. These are your parents and they will always be your parents. While you support and care for them, that doesn’t mean you are now their parents and they are children. Employ the “golden rule – how would you want to be treated when it comes time for you to limit or stop driving? How would you feel if that happened right now? What would go through your own head. It’s no different for them. Be careful about what language you use. Discussing “hanging up the keys” is much less adversarial, belittling or threatening than “taking away your keys.”

  • Who? Decide who is the best person to talk to Mom and Dad about sensitive topic; who do they trust to have their best interest in mind? What approach works best for them? (i.e. authority figure, sensitive approach, casual suggestion, direct conversation etc.) Should a spouse initiate the talk? Or is a doctor, adult child, other family member, friend, or even religious leader best? Anyone is better than a police officer – that’s your last resort.
  • Plan ahead. If you have conversations early and often it can help desensitize the subject and give you a chance to put solid plans in place.
    • Encourage your loved one to “plan ahead” for his/her future, including where they want to live, health care decisions, advanced directives, financial planning, and planning for a time when they won’t drive. There is a sense of being more in control of our lives that way.
    • 9 out of 10 people want to remain in their homes as they get older - people are living longer and the suburbs are graying. America is difficult to navigate without a car, especially in suburbs and rural areas.  Approach the subject in terms of how will we deal with a time when you won’t drive anymore?
  • Remember the meaning of driving. It has meaning for people – memories, freedom, adventure, flexibility…a link to independence. When someone resists limited or no driving, it’s not just about being stubborn. It’s about the changes it will mean in their lives and the loss of a big chunk of independence. Keep in mind:
    • No transportation can lead to social isolation, which can lead to depression and health problems.
    • Transportation can be key to ensuring that people remain productive, happy and connected to their family, friends, and community. It’s a quality of life issue.
    • Not driving at all is a big unknown. Listen to your loved one’s feeling about it and validate their concerns.
    • Negative feelings may get stirred up, but just keep remembering those feelings are about the situation, not about you. Be compassionate and help them work through their fears and concerns.
  • Be specific and offer to help. Offering to help makes it a “we process and not an adversarial one. Here are some suggestions for how you could help:
    • Gather information about alternative options for transportation and help them make choices and connect with: public transportation/mass transit, driving services, taxis, friends, family, faith community, neighbors, transportation for older adults, facility vans or volunteers.
    • Help them sign up for a Driver Safety course to refresh driving skills – offer to take the course with them – perfect for we adult children who are age 50 and older!
    • Help set up an assessment from occupational therapist who can help them make sure their car is adjusted properly for them. Don’t let the car make the decision about when they stop driving.
    • Help with ongoing car maintenance.
    • Help them make plans to modify activities to sync with changes in driving. For example, if night driving is a concern, help them find a day time yoga class instead of the evening one they’ve been going to. Or suggest they plan to meet friends for lunch instead of dinner. Offer to take them grocery shopping when you go to share gas costs and save them a trip.
    • Calculate how much money they would save by not having a car – no insurance, car payments, maintenance, gas – saving on all that will provide funds toward getting around alternatively.

Good luck and remember: discuss health, skills and safety  – not age.

I’d love to hear about your conversations with those you care for!