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.

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.

over 1 year ago, said...

Both were 89 when their licenses were taken away. Very lucky that they had not had a serious accident, and as far as we know, never caused a serious accident. Both were 89 when their licenses were taken away. Very lucky that they had not had a serious accident, and as far as we know, never caused a serious accident. Hide

over 1 year ago, said...

What it took was turning Mom and Dad in twice to the DMV. The first time, they were still living in their home out in the country, and I was not involved in their healthcare. The second time, they were living near me in Independent Living, had a ding on a bumper that neither one knew anything about, and DMV plan suspended Dad's license until his Neurologist would allow him to have it back (never), Mom had to be tested at a Field Safety Office. She failed miserably. It was so hard to... Show more What it took was turning Mom and Dad in twice to the DMV. The first time, they were still living in their home out in the country, and I was not involved in their healthcare. The second time, they were living near me in Independent Living, had a ding on a bumper that neither one knew anything about, and DMV plan suspended Dad's license until his Neurologist would allow him to have it back (never), Mom had to be tested at a Field Safety Office. She failed miserably. It was so hard to watch, but we kept the public safe. It worked out OK for them, although Dad called it age discrimination and still does to this day. Hide

over 1 year ago, said...

I truly believe I lost a dear friend sooner than necessary because her son simply took her car "for repairs" one day then told her she wasn't getting it back! She was in her 80s, fully self sufficient and living on her own, but did have some physical challenges that could very well have been a danger to herself and others. After losing her car and having to rely on others, her entire mood and attitude toward life and physical well being spiraled downward quickly. She was gone within 9... Show more I truly believe I lost a dear friend sooner than necessary because her son simply took her car "for repairs" one day then told her she wasn't getting it back! She was in her 80s, fully self sufficient and living on her own, but did have some physical challenges that could very well have been a danger to herself and others. After losing her car and having to rely on others, her entire mood and attitude toward life and physical well being spiraled downward quickly. She was gone within 9 months. This is a VERY delicate phase of someone's life. I am thankful for the advice contained in this article, as my husband and his siblings need to discuss this subject with my 93-year-old father-in-law. We love him so much and want to communicate this with him the best way possible so as to avoid a similar outcome as with my friend. Thank you. Hide

over 3 years ago, said...

What if the senior feels his driving/eyesight/reaction is just fine? What if the senior feels his driving/eyesight/reaction is just fine? Hide

about 4 years ago, said...

My husband likes to be driven and I just love to drive. I would just like to take the driving over, I did mention that I was driving to and from work then "living in the car" until he was finished with work. It might be a good idea to mention the savings if he no longer drove! (ins, etc.) Being the chauffeur would allow us to go more instead of sitting at home doing nothing. I'm going to try it tonight!! My husband likes to be driven and I just love to drive. I would just like to take the driving over, I did mention that I was driving to and from work then "living in the car" until he was finished with work. It might be a good idea to mention the savings if he no longer drove! (ins, etc.) Being the chauffeur would allow us to go more instead of sitting at home doing nothing. I'm going to try it tonight!! Hide

about 4 years ago, said...

My husband had an accident several months ago. He picks up our grandsons nearly every day and drives quite a few miles to and from work each day. Yes he is still working, that is all he talks about, all the time! I have been talking to our son and he is working with me on getting Dad to think about letting me drive him again. I did drive him to and from work daily for about 2 months after the accident, then spent my days in the car until "quiting time". Not really bad, just different.... Show more My husband had an accident several months ago. He picks up our grandsons nearly every day and drives quite a few miles to and from work each day. Yes he is still working, that is all he talks about, all the time! I have been talking to our son and he is working with me on getting Dad to think about letting me drive him again. I did drive him to and from work daily for about 2 months after the accident, then spent my days in the car until "quiting time". Not really bad, just different. suddenly he is worried about gas prices instead of the lives of the grandbabies, others, and himself. This is going to help me get conversations going NOW instead of later. Hide

over 4 years ago, said...

Talk about husbands and wives rather than parent and child. The relationship is different, and our kids live 400 miles away so aren't much help. My husband doesn't mind not actually driving as long as he can just take the car around the block once a week. I'd like to sell his car and save the insurance. I can drive, but in addition to early dementia my husband has intermittent double vision and depth of field issues. I am tired of being a chauffeur but don't see any other option. Talk about husbands and wives rather than parent and child. The relationship is different, and our kids live 400 miles away so aren't much help. My husband doesn't mind not actually driving as long as he can just take the car around the block once a week. I'd like to sell his car and save the insurance. I can drive, but in addition to early dementia my husband has intermittent double vision and depth of field issues. I am tired of being a chauffeur but don't see any other option. Hide

almost 6 years ago, said...

The advice offered in this article is intelligent, respectful, and humane. By all means try it. You owe your mother or father at least that much. But if it falls on deaf ears, go rip the ignition wires out of mom's or dad's car. Tell her or him that their car was vandalized, which it was. You could very well be saving someone's life, or spinal cord. I'm no gerontologist, just a dumb EMT who has seen what can happen. If you'd seen what I've seen, you wouldn't hesitate to follow my advice. The advice offered in this article is intelligent, respectful, and humane. By all means try it. You owe your mother or father at least that much. But if it falls on deaf ears, go rip the ignition wires out of mom's or dad's car. Tell her or him that their car was vandalized, which it was. You could very well be saving someone's life, or spinal cord. I'm no gerontologist, just a dumb EMT who has seen what can happen. If you'd seen what I've seen, you wouldn't hesitate to follow my advice. Hide

almost 6 years ago, said...

a worried in-law a worried in-law Hide