When a Parent is Unsafe Behind the Wheel

When a Parent is Unsafe Behind the Wheel

By Ann Thompson

As a child grows, their parents watch them and encourage them to do more in the name of maturity. And sometimes, as a senior becomes more frail, their child watches them and encourages them to do less in the name of safety. It’s a difficult role reversal.

Last month, I addressed reasons it may be time to consider asking Mom or Dad to surrender their car keys. This month, I’d like to offer some helpful suggestions about how to go about having that very difficult discussion.

First of all, you should understand why you shouldn’t make the decision to take Mom’s license lightly. Put yourself in her shoes. How often do you drive? For most people, their car is like another arm or leg; it’s almost impossible to imagine accomplishing all the activities of a typical week without the aid of driving. Taking Mom’s driver’s license removes some of her independence. She’ll no longer be able to drive herself to the grocery store, to church, to the senior center, or to the vet. She’ll need to rely on others or public transportation or she’ll have to choose to stay home. The experience can be traumatic.

Do you live far away from Dad? Are you basing your decision to take away his driver’s license on his age or what others are saying? Don’t be hasty to make a decision which may seriously hinder his lifestyle and might actually cause a problem in your relationship. And, if you’re the caregiver, don’t let relatives’ opinions bully you into making a decision you don’t agree with. It’s important to be safe, but it’s just as important to be empathetic of Dad’s wishes and needs. Involve Dad in the consideration and decision.

When you’ve decided to broach the subject, keep in mind that it’s very unlikely you’ll only have one discussion. This is a loaded subject. It must be handled carefully and may take several conversations of ever-deepening subject matter. And don’t forget that you’re likely to be perceived as the accuser and Dad will feel like the accused. It’s unlikely he’s going to willingly hand over his license after just one conversation. Encourage him to tell you how he feels about it. Unless he has dementia or is otherwise incapacitated, it’s best to respect his right to make decisions about his life — with your input and support.

Often it’s easier to broach the subject in an indirect way. Don’t jump in with an accusation or negative statement. If Dad’s recently received a traffic ticket, ask him about it. Let him talk about the situation and then follow up with a few questions, like, “How are you doing with your driving?” and “Are you finding it more difficult or more stressful?” Be on Dad’s side and be concerned for him. Most likely, if Dad’s driving has become erratic and sloppy, he’s noticed, and he may even be sensitive about it.

Caring.com gives some very good advice on how “reflective listening” can go a long way toward handling objections: “Dad may respond by pointing out all the practical reasons he can’t stop driving (‘What about my weekly golf game?’ or ‘My wife’s physical therapy appointments are clear across town!’). Without directly answering your question about his driving ability, he’s already making the case for why he can’t stop. This is valuable information because it provides a glimpse of his own internal struggle: He knows that he’s having trouble driving safely but can’t fathom how he’ll manage without a car.

“Encourage him to discuss his concerns without immediately jumping in with solutions (don’t rush in with ‘I’m sure Jack will be happy to drive you to the golf course,’ or ‘The bus goes right by the physical therapy office.’) It’s also usually counterproductive to offer reassurances (Like, “Don’t worry, it will all work out fine.”) Such responses may offer temporary comfort, but they won’t help you or him explore the larger issues involved.

“Instead, you can help him express his fears by using reflective listening, a technique Elizabeth Dugan recommends when talking about driving and other difficult issues with an elderly parent or other older adult. Reflective listening — which essentially means rephrasing what the person has said — conveys support and encouragement and helps the speaker gain insight about his experience.

“To use reflective listening in the example above, you could say something like, ‘I’m sure 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 him to keep talking about his worries and reflect upon them, which is an important step in working through major problems and transitions.”

Whatever you do, don’t be in a hurry to resolve the situation. Mom may need time to reminisce and to wrap her mind around giving up something that has been such an integral part of her life. You could suggest she create a pros and cons list. Once she writes down the cost savings (no more auto insurance, gas and upkeep charges) and safety benefits (no chance of having or causing a serious accident), it may be easier for her to see your side of the matter.

If need be, put the discussion on hold to allow the idea to sink in. Dad may be more open to talking about it at another time after he’s had time to process it.

Caring.com suggests six ways you can help someone stop driving:

  1. Make it a habit to check in on them often, just to chat or share some news.
  2. Offer to drive them to the activities they enjoy — or help find someone else who can take them.
  3. See that they’re included in family outings, like their grandchildren’s school events or a day at the beach.
  4. Encourage them to try taking the bus on their next trip to the pharmacy, or to walk, if it isn’t too far away, and offer to take them if you can.
  5. Urge them to ask for rides from friends, and to reciprocate in whatever way they can (preparing a meal, for example).
  6. Help them develop new routines and interests that don’t require driving, like gardening, walking, or swimming at the local pool.

When you’ve made the decision that it is no longer safe for Mom or Dad to drive, know that this is just the first step of many toward resolving the situation. The undertaking will most likely take a lot of time, understanding, patience and persistence. But be strong in your conviction. If you truly feel it isn’t safe, you need to do something about it.

About the author: Ann Thompson is Vice President for Member Services at Advent Christian Village, a post she has held since 2009. In this capacity, she is responsible for all programs and services for ACV’s members, including Social Services. Prior to her tenure at ACV, she spent 20 years as Administrator at Cathedral Residences in Jacksonville, Florida.

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