How to Talk about Elderly Driving with a Loved One

Plan Ahead
It’s a good idea to plan how you’re going to approach this 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 them.

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 you’re caring for to immediately stop driving, even if you think this is the best course of action. Unless the driver has dementia or is otherwise incapacitated, it’s best to respect his or her right to make decisions about their life — with your input and support.

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!” they’ll probably either get angry or tune you out.

Remember that if you’ve noticed erratic driving, they are probably aware of it, too. You can be most helpful by letting them express and work through their own concerns. A good way to do this is to initiate the discussion with a question. For instance, if you know that they have received a traffic ticket, ask them 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 they 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 their driving ability, they’re already making the case for why they can’t stop. This is valuable information because it provides a glimpse of their own internal struggle: They know that they are having trouble driving safely but can’t fathom how they’ll manage without a car.

Encourage them to discuss their 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 them explore the larger issues involved.

Instead, you can help them express their fears by using “reflective listening.” 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
As the discussion progresses, ask your loved one directly what he or she thinks they should do about driving. You may want to help them jot down some of the pros and cons of the alternatives they face. 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 them focus on the stark consequences — such as a car 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 this family communication 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 your loved one’s 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 they’re having difficulty driving, find out the specific problems. Make appointments with their 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 that your loved one’s car is suited to their needs and physical abilities, and ask their 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. Your loved one’s doctor might suggest limiting driving to daylight hours or essential errands. If they’re going to continue to drive at all, it’s a good idea for them to take a senior driving test. Organizations such as AARP, AAA and commercial driving schools all offer these types of courses. Agree to revisit the decision every few months to see how it’s going.

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

Take a break if they refuse to address the issue of driving safety. Your loved one 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 them more resistant. Give the matter some time, and then bring it up again in a week or so. You may find that they’ve become more receptive to discussing the matter over time, as they grow used to the idea and realize that the risks of continuing to drive outweigh the benefits.


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