Stop Driving

How to Talk to Elderly Adults About Giving up the Keys
difficult-conversation

If you have concerns about an older adult's ability to drive, addressing them promptly could be a matter of life and death. It may be tempting to procrastinate -- to talk to him next week or before the first snowfall, for example -- but think how you'd feel if the delay led to an automobile accident that resulted in a serious injury or death.

Considering the possible consequences should help you overcome your hesitation -- but that doesn't mean it will be easy. It's awkward and painful to have to inform older adults that they aren't capable of doing something as basic and essential as driving the car. For them, it's another humiliating reminder of their growing inability to take care of themselves and manage the tasks of daily life.

As difficult as it is, if you have reason to believe that the person in your care could be dangerous behind the wheel, it's important to deal with the issue sooner rather than later -- because later could be too late.

Plan Ahead

It's a good idea to plan how you're going to approach the subject before bringing it up. Take time to consider how the situation looks from the driver's point of view and what driving means to him.

In his book How to Say It to Seniors, geriatric expert David Solie points out that because elderly people face so many losses at this stage of life, they tend to rigidly control the few things they can. This struggle for control will almost certainly come into play where driving is concerned, because giving up the car keys could affect where they live, who they see, and what interests and activities they can pursue. To you, this decision is a simple matter of good sense and safety; for them, it represents the end of life as they've always known it.

Make sure your expectations are realistic. If you assume that one discussion will neatly resolve the matter, you're bound to be disappointed. Given how charged the driving issue is, you need to think of this as a process that will take some adjustment and fine-tuning. Consider this a preliminary discussion only; a way to get the issue out on the table so it can be dealt with openly.

Consider your own role. Remember that it's not up to you to convince the person your caring for to immediately cease driving, even if you think this is the best course of action. Unless the driver has dementia or is otherwise incapacitated (see below), it's best to respect his right to make decisions about his life -- with your input and support.

Consider temporarily giving up the car yourself. Elizabeth Dugan, a geriatric researcher who wrote the book The Driving Dilemma, reports that a colleague stopped using his car for two weeks before talking to his elderly father about driving safety. His carless weeks gave him firsthand experience of the inconvenience and lack of mobility that his father was going to have to endure. You may not want to give up your car before you talk with an older adult, but you should give some thought to the emotional and practical issues he'll face when he gives up driving.

Plan your discussion for a quiet time of day. Find a time when you and the driver you're concerned about are both relaxed and rested and no one has any deadlines or commitments pending.

How to Bring It Up

When you introduce the subject, try to avoid coming on too strong, or you'll set the discussion off on the wrong foot. You may feel a keen sense of urgency, but if you jump right in with, "You have to stop driving! You're going to kill someone!" he'll probably either get angry or tune you out.

Remember that if you've noticed that his driving has grown erratic and sloppy, he's probably aware of it, too. You can be most helpful by helping him express and work through his own concerns. A good way to do this is to initiate the discussion with a question. For instance, if you know that he has received a traffic ticket, ask him about it, and then follow up with another question like, "How are you doing with your driving? Are you finding it a little difficult to manage?"

Handle Objections With Reflective Listening

Your loved one 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 or Stan 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 ("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, "Look, I know 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.

Allow Space for a Long Conversation

When reflecting about driving and its role in the driver's life, don't be surprised if he begins to talk about the past. He may reminisce about his honeymoon road trip to the Grand Canyon or recall how he saved up money for his first car or taught all the kids how to drive.

Resist the temptation to interrupt and get him back on track. Instead, try to encourage the reminiscences by asking questions or even requesting to see photos. Sifting through memories will help him come to terms with this life transition as he reflects on the role driving has played in his life and gradually accept the fact that he'll soon have to give it up.

As the discussion progresses, ask him directly what he thinks he should do about driving. You may want to help him jot down some of the pros and cons of the alternatives he faces. This approach can help someone realize that there are actually some benefits to not driving (tremendous savings on auto insurance, car maintenance, and gasoline, for example). It also may help focus him on the stark consequences -- such as a fatal accident -- that could result from maintaining the status quo.

Depending on how everyone is feeling, this might be a good point to put the discussion on temporary hold. Agree to meet again in a couple of days, after you've all had a chance to reflect on the various options. (You might want to set a specific time to meet to ensure that it happens.)

Of course, there's no telling how the discussion will unfold, since that will have a lot to do with factors unique to the situation. But the discussion is much more likely to be productive and positive if you approach it with a genuine desire to learn more about his experiences, ideas, and concerns.

Find Out if Other Issues Are Affecting Driving

Find out if medical problems are causing driving issues. If the person you're caring for acknowledges that he's having difficulty driving, find out the specific problems. Make appointments with his physician and eye doctor, and be sure to ask about medication, side effects, and drug interactions. It's possible that the problem can be remedied with a change in medication or a stronger pair of glasses. Make sure his car is suited to his needs and physical abilities, and ask his doctor if assistive devices might help address driving difficulties.

Discuss interim measures, if possible. Once you determine the source of the problem, you can decide what to do next. His physician might suggest that he limit driving to daylight hours or essential errands. If he's going to continue to drive at all, it's a good idea for him to brush up on his driving skills and the traffic laws by taking a senior driving refresher course. AARP, AAA, and commercial driving schools all offer such courses. Agree to revisit the decision every few months to see how it's going.

Help explore other transportation options. Whether or not he has to give up the car keys immediately, it's a good idea to help your loved one become familiar with other transportation options. Take the bus with him if he's apprehensive and help him find out more about local senior transportation services. Encourage him to carpool with friends.

Take a break if he refuses to address the issue of driving safety. He may become angry when you try to talk about driving or refuse to discuss it, so it's a good idea to temporarily drop the issue. There's no point in engaging in a battle -- it will only make him more resistant. Give the matter some time, and then bring it up again in a week or so. You may find that he's become more receptive to discussing the matter over time, as he grows used to the idea and realize that the risks of continuing to drive outweigh the benefits.

6 Ways You Can Help Someone Stop Driving

Wherever older adults are on the driving continuum -- whether they're still driving, driving with restrictions, or must give up driving altogether -- you can play a valuable role. Your caring, active participation in their lives will reassure them that ceasing to drive doesn't have to sentence them to isolation and boredom.

  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 go with 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.

Your support and involvement in their lives will make giving up the car a far less lonely and frightening prospect.


8 months ago, said...

Honestly this was not helpful. You are expecting a 81 year old person to have appropriate responses to sensible questions. Sensibility and rational reaction is gone. They have a flight or fight response which is very scary. I have done all of the above suggestions and its too the point now where she is driving without a license. She has severe dementia and uses a walker or a cane. What other tough love options do I have?


over 1 year ago, said...

How to deal with a stubborn Senior who won't deal with the fact that her life must change.


almost 2 years ago, said...

I would like ideas for what to do when the drivers refuse to give up their keys, even though their licenses are revoked. I am trying to be straight forward and not sneaky. It's a question of their forgetting they can no longer drive. Should I talk to their insurance agent? They also refuse home health care or moving to assisted living-memory care. They don't listen to their doctor either when he makes a list of what they should do.


almost 2 years ago, said...

My Father is now 93, in diapers, due to judgement issues. Still complains that there was age discrimination in taking away his license to drive. He can't even tell that i am in the room, unless i stand in front of him and hold his shoulder and speak with him.


almost 2 years ago, said...

With Dementia, there is more urgency involved i.e. remembering where the patient lives or phone numbers if car trouble. Panic attacks are prevalent. Very difficult for one who lives with the patient-spouse or child-, but would be even more difficult if patient has been living alone.


about 2 years ago, said...

My 82 years old dad finally agreed to donate his car tonight which has been with him for the past 15+ years due to his age. I should have felt relief and joyful, instead, I felt a sense of sadness that my dad is really getting old and not driving anymore...of course it was a right decision to make, I just feel sad the fact that my dad is really getting old...I love my dad so much and want him to stay young forever....


over 2 years ago, said...

The article mentioned community transportation options briefly. The Community Transportation Association of America (www.ctaa.org), National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (www.n4a.org), and Independent Transportation Network of America (www.itnamerica.org) can lead you to local resources. There are lots of good programs out there. Many are based on volunteer drivers, not just public transportation.


almost 3 years ago, said...

jack jackson - I would check with your insurance agent, as the laws may very from state to state. If you are allowed to purchase and have a car in your name, you need to make sure that you have a liability umbrella policy to cover your assets in case of a lawsuit. In some states, you may own the car, but you cannot possess the keys to it, as that constitutes having 'control' of the car, which without a driver's license is illegal. Insurance agents would be the best resource for this. Hope this helps.


almost 3 years ago, said...

This is a required tool and need to be widened


about 3 years ago, said...

This is not really a comment but a question. I am 66 yrs old and and gave up my drivers license a couple of months ago for medical reasons. Mainly because of the medicine I am taking. I just do not fell safe behind the wheel. My question is can I still buy a car in my own name even though I have no intention of driving.it?


about 3 years ago, said...

It also helped me to point out to them that they had a dent in their back bumper, which was bigger than a man's fist which they could not explain, nor had they noticed it. Their car has since changed into my name (for liability reasons without their knowledge using POA), but we still call it 'their' car and it is what I use to ferry Dad to and from things in as it's easier for him to get into and out of. Their trust pays me the 56.5 cents per mile to cover the costs of the additional car.


about 3 years ago, said...

What has worked with my father-in-law was a discussion about the liability issue if he were to have an accident. The threat of a lawsuit and the possible loss of his home, savings, etc out-weighed any concern he had of killing someone in an accident.


about 3 years ago, said...

The point about stopping driving yourself before the discussion is a great one. Unfortunately, I did this (not by choice) because after a stroke I started having seizures, and it was recommended I not drive for 6 months after each seizure. It makes you VERY empathetic and strengthens your position when you can say "I have been there and done that." Unfortunately, it has not helped a bit with my mom (89), although she has stopped driving to her cabin (which is 90 miles away). She still finds an excuse to drive to the grocery store EVERY day. DMV is not much help, at her last driver's test, when she could not see one of the eye tests, the nice DMV lady "loaned" my mom her glasses so my mom could pass.


about 3 years ago, said...

This was the most difficult item to address in terms of our parents' aging. We decided, after 'the talk' was an abject failure, to turn them in to the DMV for their Safety Office (California) to decide on their ability to drive. The first time, we were unprepared (uncooperative physicians). The second time, a year later, we had moved them to a Senior Independent near my home and had a whole team of extremely cooperative Doctors to help. By this time, I was their Medical Care Advocate, and managed all aspects of their care. Dad's was outright suspended without any interview or testing by the DMV facility, Mom was called in for testing, and although she passed the written test, she was unable to follow the verbal instructions of the Safety Office Manager (here's your test, take your time, and wait here for me to return). He watched through the window, and waited for a period of time (about 10 minutes) sure enough, Mom came trotting out because she had forgotten the instructions. Then in the oral interview portion, recorded in a private room with Dad and I present - also admonished not to speak, Mom was unable to give her street address. Dad tried to answer a couple times for her, and had to be severely spoken to by the Manager. Mom's license was revoked. We went to a regular DMV nearby that had no wait times (unusual for CA), and I had them issued Senior ID cards - which had the same numbers as their drivers' licenses. The odd thing was, DMV did not take the licenses from them, so I grabbed them and kept them so they wouldn't forget and drive because they had a license in their wallet. Even though it was 4 years ago, Dad still says it was age discrimination - he's 91 now. It's difficult, but must be done. I actually believe that after 70 years of age, drivers need to be tested by the Safety Office of all DMV's every other year. I'm almost 55, so I'm coming up on that age - I notice that I do not drive as well as I did years ago. Best wishes to all of you in this situation - it's tough, but public safety, not just your loved ones' safety is at stake!


almost 4 years ago, said...

Assessments should be based on the same criteria that GOT them a driver's license - nothing more, nothing less. Doesn't matter what their age is. I'm more concerned about some of the YOUNG drivers on the road that don't have much experience, than the senior drivers that have been driving many years.


almost 4 years ago, said...

Just as we test young drivers for their ability to obtain a driver's license, we should at a certain age start testing every 4 years for the ability to keep the license. I feel at age 70 we should all be tested every 4 years to ensure our hearing, visibility, and response time are all very good to continue driving. I can't tell you how many times I've witnessed folks 70 yrs or older nearly causing accidents...usually because they obviously could not see or hear well and therefore either driving erratically or over cautiously, causing others to have to break or swerve to avoid the accident. Losing the privelege to drive is viewed by many elderly folks as losing independence; and because of that most often they refuse to stop driving, even though they can barely walk to the car or see or hear half of what's going on around them.