elderly driving

The Driving Talk: How to Talk to Your Elderly Parents About Driving

Adult children face many difficult conversations with their parents, but the hardest may be how to talk to their elderly parents about driving. Before approaching this sensitive topic, it’s best to understand what driving means to them — and it goes much deeper than their ability to still run errands.

What Driving Really Means to Our Aging Loved Ones

Whenever facing the challenges that come as our parents age, it can be really beneficial to try and imagine walking a mile in their shoes. Think back to when you first got your driver’s license. What did it mean to you? How did that first taste of independence feel?

Getting your license allowed you to get your first job, meet up with friends, and explore the world on your terms. Driving, particularly in the United States, is the beginning of adult life. And for many seniors, the loss of driving feels like the end of adult life. Imagine that for a minute and let it sink in.

How would it feel to lose your ability to drive?

Your aging parents are reluctant to give up driving because there’s more at stake than convenience. Driving is one of their last connections to life as a fully functioning adult. By this point in their lives, they’ve likely given up their career, downsized from the family home, stopped participating in certain hobbies or activities, and have started saying goodbye to friends and loved ones on a regular basis.

This is A LOT of change, loss, and grief for any human to face.

When they cling to their car keys, we shouldn’t be surprised. To them, driving is a connection to who they were and the life they lived.

Many seniors are aware of the safety risks they face as aging drivers. They also know there are not a lot of alternative ways to get around town. Rationally, they may know that their driving isn’t as sharp as it used to be. But handing over keys to your kids or your doctor is not a rational decision. It’s filled with emotions they may not fully recognize or understand.

So, when the time comes, approach this topic gently. They deserve your empathy and compassion. They are navigating one of the most difficult times in the human lifespan.

How to Know When It’s Time for the Driving Talk

If you’re trying to determine if your parents should stop driving, remember this crucial point:

It’s about their ability not their age.

While it’s true that drivers over the age of 75 have an increased chance of fatal crashes, this has more to do with their susceptibility to injury rather than their driving ability. In addition, keep in mind that aging affects everyone differently. Your 80-year-old mother may be more alert and in better overall health than her younger counterparts. People well beyond 65 can be safe and competent drivers.

One of the best ways to assess your parents’ driving is to observe it firsthand as a passenger. You should also talk with people who ride with them and pay attention when you’re following them (if you’re going somewhere together in separate cars).

Gathering first-hand information is step one. Step two is to answer these questions from the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA):

  • Are they getting lost on routes that should be familiar?
  • Have you noticed new dents or scratches to the vehicle?
  • Have they received a ticket for a driving violation?
  • Have they experienced a near-miss or crash recently?
  • Have they been advised to limit or stop driving due to a health reason?
  • Are they overwhelmed by road signs and markings while driving?
  • Are they taking any medication that might affect driving safely?
  • Have they received a ticket for impaired driving?
  • Have you noticed them speeding or driving too slowly for no reason?
  • Are they suffering from any illness that may affect driving skills?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, it’s time to talk with your parents about their driving. This may not mean they should stop driving, but they should begin to take steps to protect themselves, such as:

  • Only driving during daytime hours
  • Avoiding highways
  • Avoiding morning and afternoon rush hours
  • Refraining from long road trips

It’s likely time for your parents to stop driving if car accidents are becoming frequent, they’ve been diagnosed with a medical condition (such as dementia), or are on medication that impairs driving ability.

Tips for a Successful Driving Talk

If you’ve decided it might be time for your elderly parents to limit or stop driving, here are a few tips to make the difficult conversation a little easier:

  1. Be prepared. Tell them why you’re concerned using the information you’ve gathered first-hand and/or from others. You should also mention any of the above questions from the NHTSA.
  2. Be sensitive. Don’t talk down to them. They are still fully-grown adults, even if it doesn’t seem like it sometimes. You want to establish an environment of working with them not dictating decisions about their life. Dig deep to approach this difficult situation with empathy and compassion.
  3. Pick the right person. Whoever leads the conversation should be a close friend or family member whom the driver “hears” the best. You may choose to have a one-on-one or group conversation. You know your parent best, so make choices that will best achieve a positive result and protect their dignity.
  4. Use the right phrasing. Using “I” statements will go over better than “you” statements, which can be interpreted as accusatory and result in defensive reactions. For example, “I’m concerned about your safety when you’re driving,” will be much better received than, “You’re no longer a safe driver.”
  5. Use examples. If someone you know has recently stopped or limited their driving, suggest that your parent talk with them, particularly if this person is happy with their decision and has had success using other forms of transportation. If no one comes to mind, you can find plenty of examples online.
  6. Highlight alternatives. They’ll have concerns about getting to appointments, running errands, and seeing friends if they don’t drive. Make sure you have detailed answers about alternative modes of transportation, such as GoGoGrandparent which offers Lyft and Uber rides without having to use a smartphone, or options offered by your county, which we’ll discuss more in-depth below.
  7. Expect pushback. They may be defensive or dismissive of your concerns. And that’s understandable with such a huge life change, but it doesn’t mean they haven’t heard you. They probably need time to think about it and let things sink in. At the very least, you’ve opened up a dialogue and begun the process of taking an important step.

Alternatives to Not Driving

Before you talk with parents about not driving, it’s important to know what transportation alternatives are available in their area.

Public Transportation. Most drivers over the age of 65 live in rural or suburban communities where public transportation is limited, but this option is still available for many seniors. If your parents is uncomfortable using public transportaion, ask your local transit agency about a “travel training” course.

Ride-Share Services. For seniors, especially those uncomfortable with apps, the best ride-share option is GoGoGrandparent. This service allows people to use ride-share services Uber and Lyft without a smartphone. Your aging loved one just calls GoGoGrandparent, follows the easy prompts, and a car will pick them up wherever they are. You can also call 1-855-GOGO-USA for more information. If your aging parents are comfortable with apps, they can use Uber and Lyft directly. Both companies have pilot programs geared toward seniors.

County Transportation. Most counties offer door-to-door transportation services for little or no cost, specifically for seniors.

Hired Caregivers. Another option for those who need assistance would be hired caregiver services. Most will provide transportation as part of their service along with an escort to assist with equipment, carrying bags, etc. These services are typically private pay and the rates are around $20-25 per hour. Lower income seniors can qualify for Community Care which would be free as part of those services. (This requires an application, financial information, etc. to qualify.)

And Last But Not Least — You. Yes, you. Not for every ride they need, of course, but think about how they carted you around to band practice, baseball games, and movie nights with friends. You probably owe them a few rides. Plus, it’s a good way to catch up and check-in with them about how things are going.

The Last Resort – What to Do If They Won’t Stop Driving

Some aging parents won’t give up their keys no matter what information you present. Others won’t even change their behaviors — they’ll still drive at night, in the rain, and on highways at rush hour. So, what can you do if things seem really desperate?

Unfortunately, the options are limited in Illinois. Unlike most states, the Secretary of State will only accept information about potentially unsafe drivers from police officers.

Get their doctor involved. Seniors are much more likely to listen to a healthcare professional than to a family member. If a doctor feels that a medical condition or medication can impair your parents’ ability to drive, they can recommend that they stop. And Illinois law mandates that doctors must encourage patients to notify the Secretary of State within 10 days of becoming aware of those conditions.

Training and self-assessment. AARP offers a Driver Safety Program with a 90% chance of driver improvement. And 92% of participants say they’d recommend the course to a friend! When completed, these courses offer insurance discounts. For a more immediate and less involved option, the NHTSA offers an online Self-Assessment Course. AAA also offers online courses and assessments.

We understand that this is an incredibly difficult time for you and your family. The stress that comes with the challenges of aging can easily overwhelm. This is why we developed our Elder Care Advisor role. We believe that everyone deserves to feel supported and prepared as they care for aging loved ones. We evaluate your family’s needs, tailor a plan that’s just right for you, and leave you feeling well-prepared for whatever may come in the future.

If you would like immediate help from an Elder Care Advisor, we encourage you to call us at 217-726-9200 for more information or to schedule a consultation. If you’d like to learn more about how Elder Care Advisors help families feel informed, empowered, and supported as they face the challenges of aging, we encourage you to attend one of our upcoming FREE workshops — Aging Parents, Stressed Out Kids. You can RSVP for that workshop at 217-726-9200.