Remember how excited you were when you turned 16 and you could finally drive? Oh, the freedom and the sense of pride! No more asking mom for a ride or being stuck at home.
So maybe you can imagine what it’s like for your dad, who knows that his vision is failing and his reflexes have slowed but is terrified about what not being able to drive might mean for him: Now “The Man” behind the wheel thinks he will become an old man stranded at home with no keys, no freedom, no independence — no life.
For many seniors, letting go of the ability to drive means letting go of their ability to get out of the house, connect with friends, run to the grocery store, and more. It also means relying on others for transportation, which just adds to the fear many aging parents have of “becoming a burden.”
It’s not easy being the person to discuss driving with an aging parent, either. Maybe you’re grieving; it’s sad to watch your dad not being able to do the things that used to be easy and natural. Or perhaps you feel guilty about pointing out that your dad is no longer safe behind the wheel.
But what if your dad really shouldn’t be driving anymore?
Knowing what fears aging parents have about giving up driving will help you handle the conversations more compassionately and successfully.
How to Talk to Elderly Parents About Not Driving Anymore
If you’re thinking about suggesting to your aging parent that it may be time to stop driving, don’t. Starting a conversation that way can easily and quickly deteriorate into one of the most difficult conversations you will ever have.
Why? Because it probably won’t feel like a conversation to your parent. To them, it’s likely to feel like a one-sided lecture full of judgments.
Instead, if you can, have what-if conversations way before your parent’s driving abilities are even in question.
Start with What-Ifs
Long before your mom’s first fender bender, introduce the topic of “driving retirement,” rather than “hanging up” or “taking away” the keys. Maybe you’re going home for the holidays, and one morning over a cup of coffee you pose a what-if: “What if one day you don’t feel as confident behind the wheel anymore? Have you thought about what driving retirement looks like for you?”
Another option might be, “What if I noticed that your driving is changing? What would be the best way to approach you, Mom?”
By having conversations early and often about driving, and by asking your parent for their input long before a crisis happens, you’ll make future conversations easier for both parties because guidelines and expectations have been established.
Understand Your Parent’s Fears
It’s important that you really understand what giving up driving means for your parents — because it’s a lot more than just not driving anymore.
Driving represents freedom and independence: the ability to visit friends, to spend lunchtime out at a restaurant, to come visit you when he wants to, to run to the store when he runs out of toilet paper, to make a quick trip to the grocery store, to take care of daily chores.
Once your parent no longer drives, they’ll feel completely reliant on others for everything. Wouldn’t that make you angry and defensive, too?
Acknowledge that this is difficult for your parent, and approach the subject respectfully. Begin the conversation by saying, “Mom, I know this must be hard for you.”
Ask Your Parent About How They Feel
Before you launch into a litany of reasons why your parent shouldn't be driving, ask them about how they feel about their own skills. Does your mom feel she can easily and quickly turn her head from side to side? Can she see clearly in both eyes? How does it feel to turn a steering wheel? Can she quickly move her feet if she needed to push on the brakes?
Pause after each question so your parent has time to think about their own skills. Encourage them to discuss their concerns, and don’t immediately jump in with solutions. Your loved one is in the midst of mourning a major loss, and talking about it will help them come to terms with their grief.
You could even say something like, “I know you’re probably worried that giving up driving would mean you have to give up some of your usual activities.” This type of response will encourage them to keep talking about their worries and reflect upon them.
Have a Game Plan
Whether your parent can drive or not, they still have places to go, errands to run, and people to see. Staying connected with friends and being active in the community is essential for preventing the negative effects of social isolation.
It helps to come up with strategies that will enable your loved one to remain as independent as possible. First, remember that driving is not necessarily an all-or-nothing activity. There are many ways your parents can adjust their driving before giving it up entirely, such as:
- Avoiding driving at night
- Driving only to familiar locations
- Not driving in poor weather conditions
- Leaving plenty of time to get where they are going
- Not driving alone
Other alternatives to driving include hiring a driver, taking advantage of community-based transportation programs, using on-demand ride services like Uber or Lyft, or arranging a ride schedule with family and friends.
If your parent is ready to give up driving, it’s a great time to consider moving to an assisted living community that provides rides for their residents. For many seniors, driving retirement is easier to cope with if they’re living in a community with easy access to friends, delicious meals, and transportation services.
Talking with elderly parents about driving retirement isn’t easy. That’s why it’s best to have the conversation proactively, rather than waiting for a crisis to occur. If you keep in mind that your parent is probably struggling with major life changes and have a game plan ready to help the transition seem smoother, you’ll increase the likelihood of finding solutions that balance the importance of safety with their need for independence.
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