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Hand Over the Keys! Having the “Big Talk” with a Senior Driver

Even though we know we’ll probably have to face it eventually, it’s a discussion all adults dread: the “Big Talk” about driving with a senior parent or grandparent. No one looks forward to telling their parent or grandparent it’s time to hang up the keys. However, when you notice your aging mom has dropped her driving speeds to 30 mph below the speed limit or you discover that your dear old dad no longer acknowledges stop lights, it’s time to have the talk.

If you have an aging family member who shouldn’t be behind the wheel, here are a few tips for broaching this delicate topic with them:

Know the warning signs

If you don’t spend a lot of time with your senior parent or grandparent, you may be uncertain about whether or not it’s time for them to stop driving. However, there are a few warning signs you should keep an eye out for that will help you make the decision.

For example, every time you visit, you may notice new dents and scratches on their car, their garage door or their mailbox. They may tell you about multiple near-accidents (although some will claim it wasn’t their fault) or they might continually receive traffic tickets or warnings. They may complain that they often miss street turns or can’t see traffic signs at the side of the road. These are all signs that it’s time to have the “Big Talk” with your senior parent.

Don’t hesitate

It’s natural to be anxious about telling your mom or dad they need to stop driving. Your parents have been telling you what to do for your entire life. So, it’s awkward when the tables turn and you suddenly have to tell the people who raised you what’s best for them.

However, look at it this way: your parent will be better off getting this advice from you and the rest of your family than receiving an order from the state motor vehicle department. As family members and people who love and know them, you and your relatives are the best candidates for telling your parent it’s time to give up driving.

Broach the topic delicately

Once you’ve determined the time has come for the driving discussion, try to get the all of the adults in your family involved. Work together to come up with the best approach for telling the senior driver it’s time to hang up the keys.

When you have the discussion with your parent or grandparent, try to keep the conversation adult-like. Do not treat the senior like a child—talk to them as you would about any other adult matter. Instead of being accusatory and saying things like “You did this” and “You’re not doing that,” try to use “I” to describe how you perceive the situation. For example, you may say, “I think you’re having a hard time seeing the road,” or “I worry about you having a terrible accident.”

If your parent resists, point out that they have a responsibility to others, as well. You may want to talk about how horrible they would feel if they killed or injured an innocent person because of a driving mistake. Typically, this is enough to convince a person that they shouldn’t be on the road.

However, if your parent simply refuses to give up driving and they haven’t had any accidents, you may have to give in and allow him to keep driving for another year. As they are still sharp of mind, they may still be able to manage a car.

On the other hand, if your parent has the beginnings of dementia, they should absolutely not be behind the wheel. If your loved one is suffering from the onset of dementia, you may have to sell the car and tell them it just isn’t available anymore or disable the car and tell them it no longer runs. This may seem cruel, but remember—it’s for the safety of your loved one and other drivers.

Be sensitive

Although you may tempted to firmly tell your parent, “Hand over the keys!” this is probably not the best way to approach the matter. Try to understand that this is going to be a tough transition for you loved one. After all, how will mom make it to her beauty parlor appointments or to church? How will dad get to the doctor or his poker parties? Try to see things from their perspective, and be sensitive to their feelings.

Many seniors fall into a deep depression after they stop driving because they feel a loss of freedom and control over their lives. This is why it’s so important to come up with alternatives to driving. As you discuss the change with your parent, discuss possible solutions for how they will get around. Maybe you, your siblings and other relatives could take turns driving them to their appointments and functions. Alternatively, you could purchase a mass transit pass for them so they can take the bus or the subway. You may also consider hiring a home-care agency that will transport your parent from point A to point B.

Whatever you do, don’t just firmly lay down the law with your parent and banish him or her to their house forever. Put yourself in their shoes, be delicate and offer clear solutions.