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The Best Way to Talk to Aging Adults About Driving

When you raise the issue of driving with your parents or other older adults, your approach may determine the outcome.

By , Caring.com senior editor
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How to approach the issue of driving

What's the best way to approach your parents or other older adults about their driving abilities? In The Driving Dilemma , Elizabeth Dugan encourages adult children and caregivers to use open-ended questions and reflective listening techniques when they raise the driving issue.

Beginning the conversation with an open-ended question invites them to explore and express their feelings. This is far more effective than starting off with an emphatic statement -- no matter how accurate -- which is likely to get the conversation off on the wrong foot.

Consider these two examples (you can substitute the appropriate name or form of address you use for the person you're caring for):

Emphatic statement: "Mom, you nearly hit that car at the intersection near the grocery store today, and that's not the first time. You need to stop driving!"

Open-ended question: "Mom, you seemed really tense while we were driving to the grocery store today, and you had a little trouble at that traffic light. How is driving going for you these days?"

The emphatic statement certainly will get her attention, but it's also apt to make her angry. She'll feel compelled to defend herself rather than to give careful thought to what you said. On the other hand, the second approach encourages her to express her own concerns about her driving.

How to Listen When Talking to a Senior About Driving

Reflective listening is a way of reflecting back a person's words in order to help her gain a better understanding of her feelings and experiences.

Let's say the person you're caring for replies to your open-ended question by saying something like, "Sometimes I guess I do feel a little tense when I'm driving. It can feel as if everything is happening so fast, and cars come out of nowhere. I honestly didn't see that white car until he was almost on top of us."

Using reflective listening, you could reply by saying, "It sounds like you're having a little trouble seeing cars and keeping track of everything going on around you."

A reflective statement like this will help the person relax and express her concerns in a nondefensive way, while providing you with more information about her perspective on her driving abilities. How would a hypothetical conversation play itself out? Something like this, depending on which of these two approaches you choose:

Confrontational approach

Using a confrontational approach, you might hit a brick wall (so to speak):

You: Mom, you nearly hit that car at the intersection near the grocery store today, and that's not the first time. You need to stop driving!

Mom: What? I can't stop driving. How will I get around? Besides, you're exaggerating. And that guy was driving too fast anyway.

You: But he had the right of way!

Mom: I drive just fine and I don't need you nagging me about it. I'm not discussing it, so let's drop it!

You: But you could kill someone. How would you feel if that happened?

Mom: I told you -- I'm not talking about this anymore!

Open-ended questions and reflective listening

You: Mom, you seemed really tense while were driving to the grocery store today, and you had a little trouble at that traffic light. How is driving going for you these days?

Mom: Sometimes I guess I do feel a little tense when I'm driving. It can feel as if everything is happening so fast, and cars come out of nowhere. I honestly didn't see that white car until he was almost on top of us.

You: You're having a little trouble seeing cars and keeping track of everything going on around you.

Mom: Yes. It's a little scary sometimes.

You: It sounds scary. Are you having problems with your vision?

Mom: Maybe it's my eyes, but I feel like I'm not always reacting quickly enough. Driving never used to be so difficult!

You: Hmm. Do you think maybe it would be a good idea to go in for a physical -- and maybe get your eyes checked as well?

Mom: Maybe you're right. It can't hurt to get a checkup.

Ideally, open-ended questions and reflective listening lead to this kind of exploration and understanding. The more combative approach is much more likely to bring the dialogue to an abrupt halt.

You might practice using the tools of open-ended questions and reflective listening on a friend before trying it with someone in your care. And remember, it's best to approach this topic with reasonable expectations. If you view it as an ongoing discussion rather than a single conversation, you're less likely to be disappointed by the outcome.