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Discussing Driving With Senior Parents

Having the Talk: Discussing Driving With Senior Parents

By Beth Weinhouse

Maybe it was the last time your parents picked you up at the train station when you came for a holiday visit, and you were alarmed by a change in their driving skills. Or perhaps you're worried because your parents' eyesight isn't what it used to be. Whatever the reason, you know that it might be time to bring up the topic of their driving - but it's not an easy conversation to have. In fact, a survey from the National Safety Council and Caring.com found that adult children ranked talking to elderly parents about their driving more difficult than talking to them about selling their house or even funeral wishes.

"Many family members and even medical professionals are reluctant to bring up this topic," said Elizabeth Dugan, Ph.D., associate professor of gerontology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and author of The Driving Dilemma: The Complete Resource Guide for Older Drivers and their Families. "Driving is so closely tied to a sense of freedom and autonomy."

But having this conversation, difficult though it may be, is vitally important. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), per mile traveled, fatal crash rates increase starting at age 75 and increase notably after age 80. Alarmingly, an average of 500 elderly adults are injured in the U.S. in car crashes every day.

How can you know for sure when senior parents should stop driving and that it's time to broach this sensitive topic? It's not simply a matter of age; some elderly people can continue driving well into their 80s and others may have their driving compromised much earlier by illness, medication, or factors of aging. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has a helpful list of signs that indicate it may be time to limit or stop driving. The list includes things like frequent "close calls," getting lost, issues with eyesight, and easily becoming distracted. Once you've decided to have the talk, here are some tips for making it comfortable and effective:

  • Take a ride to assess your parent's driving skills yourself. It's a great conversation starter. "It can be helpful to take a ride with your parent, and then debrief them afterwards," recommends Dugan. "You can say, 'I know this is difficult, but you seem to have trouble making left hand turns.'" Be especially observant about how your parent handles situations involving right-of-way. Studies of crashes involving seniors have found that failure to yield the right-of-way is one of the most common driving errors.

  • Keep your tone respectful and sympathetic. Driving represents autonomy, mobility, and social life. You're not bringing up this topic to be cruel and take away your parent's independence. You're having the discussion because you love your parents and are worried about their health and safety. "You're not saying, 'Give me the keys,'" says Dugan, "but 'I care for you and I want you to be as healthy, mobile and independent as possible. If you can't drive, then we'll work together to figure out something else.' The tone you take can make a big difference."

  • Provide alternative options. Follow up and help your parents find ways to continue their current activities even if they can't drive. Perhaps friends and family members can pitch in. In many areas there are public transportation options specifically for seniors. Often church and community groups provide local senior transport too.

  • Get experts involved, if necessary. If your parent seems unreceptive to your message, schedule a medical appointment to see if illness or medication is affecting their driving. Make sure your parent has an annual eye exam. A doctor can also refer your parent to a driving clinic to have his/her skills assessed by a professional.

  • Keep an open, ongoing dialogue. Finally, don't stop talking after just one conversation. Return to the topic periodically, and continually reassess your parent's driving. A change in skills behind the wheel doesn't necessarily mean going from driving anywhere to driving nowhere. A senior driver may be fine with familiar local driving, or driving only during daytime hours. "It's not one conversation that you have to get right," says Dugan. "Think about it as a process," a process with the goal of keeping your parents as active as possible AND as safe as possible.

September 18, 2013, 1:04 PM

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