When Should Your Parents Stop Driving?

by Josh Sadlier
It’s a conversation that none of us wants to have, whether we’re on the giving end or the receiving end of it. But as the older generation eases into retirement, those of us in younger generations will increasingly be forced to ask the question:
 
Are my parents still okay to drive?
 
It’s such a sensitive issue on both sides that we completely understand why many people simply don’t confront it at all. But the harsh reality is that elderly drivers, just like young or inexperienced drivers, can pose a serious threat to public safety, so the welfare of others may well hang in the balance. Since the last thing anyone wants is for a tragic accident to be the wake-up call, we’ve put together five strategies for starting that awkward conversation and seeing it through to an appropriate resolution.
 

1. Make sure there’s cause for concern.


Although the natural tendency is to avoid confrontation, it’s easy to err on the other side, too. We’ve got a lot of stereotypes in our heads about aging, so as our parents enter their golden years, we may start to mistake generic gaffes for senility. This is counterproductive in two respects: first, it’s offensive and hurtful to your elder; and second, it can make your job a lot harder when there are genuine causes for concern, because your senior driver may already be on the defensive.
 
Accordingly, while it’s imperative that you start the conversation when the signs seem clear, we recommend taking a preliminary step back and making sure that you’re not overreacting. Ask yourself: Is that something that he used to do? Could there be a benign explanation for what she just did? Only proceed if you’re confident that there’s really a red-flag issue to discuss.
 
For more on this and other aspects of the process, take a look at AARP’s helpful online seminar “Talking with Older Drivers”. 

2. Be respectful.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s more difficult than you might think to put yourself in the shoes of a senior citizen. They are often highly accomplished, competent people who have lived long, full lives. Try to imagine being one of these people and having some young whippersnapper tell you in a matter-of-fact tone, “Mom, I think it’s time you hung up those keys.” That’s not going to go over very well. So the best thing to do when initiating that conversation is to be as humble and polite as possible. Foreground your own fallibility, and make it clear that you’re broaching the topic because you love and care about them. That’s the way to start an open and honest dialogue.  
 

3. Consult an expert.

Unless you’re trained in the intricacies of the aging process, chances are you’re not qualified to pass definitive judgment on whether someone is fit to drive. That’s why we recommend consulting an independent expert – with the older person’s consent – as a way of continuing the conversation. Otherwise, it can devolve into an ongoing argument in which both sides dig in their heels. 
 
“An occupational therapist can assess the driver’s skills,” explained Nancy Thompson, a spokesperson for the AARP. “That way it’s not just the younger person making accusations.”
 
On the other hand, of course, the assessment might show that the senior is doing just fine. Either way, this step adds an element of fairness and impartiality that should make your conversation more constructive.
 

4. Help the older person prepare for life after driving.

In our conversation with the AARP’s Thompson, she emphasized the importance of appreciating the full impact of hanging up the keys. 
 
“Among people over 70,” Thompson said, “Men outlive driving age by an average of six years, and women outlive it by 10 years.”
 
Point being, these folks have got a lot of life left after their keys are taken away – so it’s incumbent on the younger generation to help lay the groundwork for a healthy post-driving existence.
 
“American communities are built around the car,” Thompson observed, “but most people want to stay in their communities as long as possible when they’re done driving, so they’ll need help researching alternatives for getting around.”
 
“Make sure the senior won’t be stuck at home,” she added. “Talk about this before taking away the keys.”
 

5. Give post-driving support any way you can.

Remember how liberating it was to get your license as a teenager? Seniors who hang up their keys are experiencing this process in reverse. Particularly in America, the car is both a symbol of personal freedom and a practical means of getting where you need to go. So losing those keys is a pretty big deal.
 
As such, we recommend checking in regularly during the post-driving period. Are the alternative transportation options working out as planned? What are some challenges that haven’t yet been overcome? Is there anything you can do to help? Life after driving can be as rewarding as ever, but just keep in mind that the older person is going to need your support to make it happen.
 

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