I’m sure you remember the day when, freshly armed with your first driver’s license, you stood before your parents and anxiously asked for the keys to their car. Now, many years later, you may find yourself in that same position. And it isn’t any easier.
The “car keys conversation” with an aging parent is one we all dread and, therefore, delay. Yet, if you have any reason to believe that your parent may not be safe behind the wheel, putting that conversation off may have deadly consequences. But how to begin? Here are some tips to get you started.
Assess the situation
Spend some time driving with your parent to observe reaction time and adherence to rules of the road. Have a general (casual) conversation around health and safety and how they are connected to driving. Comment on the increased hazards and traffic on the roads today. Ask questions to determine any concerns your parent has about driving. If they acknowledge some difficulty driving, find out the specific reasons. Ask them if they’ve had their doctor evaluate whether there’s a medical or vision issue, or whether a medication needs to be adjusted. The Hartford has a complete list of warning signs at www.safedrivingforalifetime.com. Use this as your guide.
If you determine that it truly is a danger for your aging parent to drive, plan how you will approach the topic before initiating the conversation. For most of us, driving is a key symbol of independence and we are reluctant to give it up. Explore other transportation options, such as Outreach, Silverride or iTNAmerica, before you have the conversation so you can present them with alternative ways to get around. Plan the conversation for a time when you both are relaxed and without time constraints.
Respect the need for control
As David Solie, author of How to Say It to Seniors, points out, a key goal for seniors is maintaining as much control over their lives as possible. Help your parent do this by approaching the conversation as a facilitator, rather than as a “director.” Use reflective listening to validate and address their concerns. You might say something like, “I know you’re probably worried that if you give up driving you might have to give up some of your activities.” Then solicit their ideas and input on other options for continuing those activities – the bus, riding with a friend, senior transportation, etc. Recognize that you are probably not going to get them to agree to hand over the keys after the first conversation. This will more than likely be a series of conversations over time as they process the idea.
Share your concern
Let your parent know that your motivation for the conversation is that you care about their health and safety. If possible, offer to drive them to some of their activities, or accompany them on alternative transportation until they adjust.
Above all, listen to their concerns, their fears, their resistance, their anger. Think back to what it meant to you and your sense of independence when you first got the keys to the car and your parents expressed their concern for your safety. Try to imagine what it would feel like to have something you now take for granted suddenly taken away from you. Imagine what your world would be like if you suddenly had to depend on others to get to the doctor, the grocery store or just to visit a friend.
When you approach the “car keys conversation” in a loving and empathetic manner, enabling your parent to be part of the solution and thereby maintain some control, it will be a lot less painful for both of you.
I would love to hear from those of you who’ve had the conversation: tell me what worked and what might not have gone so well. Remember, there is no one right way to do this – what is most important is that you are willing to show up and “be present” for the conversation.