My daddy loved his little red truck. At 90, he still drove it around the small town where he lived, going to church, to the grocery store and to the garden center to pick up plants for his yard. After he had a couple of minor accidents, my siblings and I decided that it was time for him to give up the keys.
My sister and I did the right thing: We made our brother tell him.
Dad accepted our decision, although he clearly didn’t like it. And in the days before the sale of the truck was final, we suspect that he made a few clandestine runs to the garden center. But soon enough, the truck found a buyer.
Dad mourned its loss. He was a highly independent person, and he had cherished the ability to get in his truck and go without having to ask anyone.
My brother, sister, and I felt bad, but we knew we had done the right thing. If my father had killed or seriously injured someone, none of us could have handled the guilt. And dad couldn’t have handled it either.
Signs That It’s Time
Being involved in accidents is one sign that an older relative may need to stop driving. Here are some others, as described by AAA’s Senior Driving website.
- Inappropriate Responses to Traffic Controls. Drivers may stop unnecessarily at green lights, fail to stop for red lights and stop signs or fail to yield the right-of-way.
- Problems With Traffic Lanes. Drivers may change lanes unsafely or drift out of their lane.
- Becoming Confused or Disoriented. If drivers get lost or confused, especially in familiar areas, they may have cognitive issues that will limit their driving.
Having the Conversation
It’s never easy to have a stop-driving conversation, but preparation can make it much easier. Here are some steps to follow.
1. Designate a messenger.
It’s true that my sister and I gave our brother the job of talking to our father because we didn’t want it. It’s also true that my brother is a successful attorney and wasn’t involved in Dad’s daily care. As such, he had an air of authority that my sister and I, Dad’s daily caregivers, couldn’t summon. Picking the best family member to broach the subject is important, but sometimes someone outside the family is a better choice. Patti Weldon’s father resisted pleas from various members of his family. “Amazingly, when his doctor told him he needed to stop driving, he graciously surrendered the keys,” Weldon said.
2. Prepare before you talk.
Before having a conversation with older relatives about stopping driving, it’s important to understand their feelings. One way to do this is suggested in AARP’s “We Need to Talk” Seminar. It involves pretending that you must be without a car for a week and imagining how this would impact your life. This is, of course, just a minor inconvenience compared to the loss suffered by an older adult who has to give up driving permanently. “It’s a huge quality-of-life issue,” said Bill Van Tassel, a driver trainer for AAA.
3. Approach the subject.
It’s sometimes helpful to begin the conversation by mentioning how challenging driving has become, with increasing traffic and unreliable road conditions. You can say that driving just isn’t much fun anymore, as well as being increasingly dangerous. Another approach is to put the emphasis on the driver’s health and safety. Emphasize how precious he or she is to the family and how upset everyone would be in the case of an accident.
4. Anticipate emotions.
When they consider having to give up driving, most people react with sadness. Only a small percentage — about 10 percent – react with anger, according to AARP. It’s important for the messenger to pay attention to the emotional response, so that your relative feels heard. It’s also important to remain calm, even if your loved one gets angry. It’s the message that is triggering the emotions, but it’s human nature to displace some emotion on the messenger.
5. Individualize your response.
The AARP seminar also suggests listening closely to your relative’s response in order to react appropriately. For many drivers, the loss of driving rights is more than an inconvenience. For example, one person may miss the freedom and spontaneity that comes from being able to drive. For that driver, it may be helpful to explore methods of getting around that can be accessed spontaneously. You might investigate public transportation or get your relative set up on a ride-sharing app such as Uber or Lyft.
In other cases, the person’s identity is closely tied to being a driver. One way to react to this scenario is to keep the driver’s vehicle, but turn the keys over to someone else. Retaining possession of a favored vehicle may be some solace. Remaining technically a driver may also help. For Annie Blanchard’s mother, having a valid driver’s license was a point of pride, although she had to give up her vehicle after having a stroke. “She’s 91 and still grumbles mildly about the loss of her car,” Blanchard said.
Can We Limit Driving Instead?
In some cases, a complete cessation of driving may not be necessary. Limiting driving to short distances under optimal conditions may be a possibility. “It’s not just all or nothing any more,“ said Van Tassel. “Seniors are often good at self-regulation.”
Van Tassel also suggests that members of the family work as a team to address the needs of senior drivers, commencing well before problems appear. One strategy that he recommends is completing a Driver Planning Agreement, which allows older individuals to have input on their driving future.
An in-car driving assessment by a neutral third party can be helpful in determining whether an older relative needs to give up the keys, Van Tassel said. Some driving schools will perform such assessments. A comprehensive vision exam could reveal issues that make driving unsafe. It could also uncover problems that could be corrected to allow a person to continue to drive.
Other measures that could keep your loved one on the road longer include:
Smarter vehicles. Upgrading to vehicles with features such as rear back-up cameras, blind spot alarms, and auto-braking could make driving manageable for many seniors.
Driving courses. Such courses update older drivers on the ways that driving has changed and offer strategies for reducing risks.
Fit clinics. Educational programs like CarFit aim to improve the fit between drivers and cars, emphasizing ergonomics and safety.
The Impact on Family
Whether your older relative ends up giving up the keys or merely limiting driving, other family members may have to add chauffeuring to their duties. In the case of an older relative who completely gives up driving, the demands on family members can be significant. Your loved one may not always be patient when wanting to go somewhere.
That’s the way it was with my dad. After he gave up his truck, when he had a hankering for petunias, he wasn’t easily put off. My sister usually got drafted for garden shop duty, because she’s the one with the green thumb. But both of us learned to enjoy an occasional unscheduled road trip. We also felt good knowing that we had done the right thing for our father — and for others on the road.
This article was written by Susan Adcox, who specializes in generational issues.