Giving Up the Car Keys

What do you do when your elderly parent needs to hand over the car keys--but won't? An elder care coordinator shares tips for handling these challenging conversations.

You’ve seen your elderly parent behind the wheel—and you’re concerned. Whether it’s a near miss involving a pedestrian at a crosswalk, unexplained dents and scratches, a narrowly avoided sideswipe in the parking lot or an incident on the freeway, the moment you realize that your mom or dad may no longer be safe behind the wheel is a sobering one. In world where driving is synonymous with independence, how do you talk to your parents about giving up the car keys?

Asking a parent to stop driving is one of the most difficult conversations you will ever have. That’s why most people put it off. It’s easier to do nothing, especially if you don’t know how to bring up the subject, not all family members agree that a parent’s driving really is a problem, or a conflict avoidant sibling says, “It will just make them angry and they’ll drive anyway so why bring it up?”
How do you share your concerns that a parent’s driving is jeopardizing his or her safety and the safety of others without sparking World War III?  It’s times like these where families working with the guidance of a Life Care Planning Law Firm have a distinct advantage. Elder care coordinators support family caregivers through every step of the process. 

According to Susan Vail, a Life Care Coordinator at Piero, Connor & Associates, a Life Care Planning Law Firm in New York, careful planning is key. “I encourage my families to begin with the ultimate goal in mind,” counseled Susan, who spent a decade working as a discharge planner before joining Pierro, Connor & Associates. “For most families, the goal is to keep the parents—and others—safe. Once that’s clear, you can start thinking about how you’ll get there.”

Planning involves talking to others who’ve had the opportunity to observe the parent’s behavior behind the wheel and generating a list of ways mom or dad might get around without a car. “I encourage my families to find out in advance what the options are since they vary widely based on location,” advised Susan. “Many local agencies and senior centers offer transportation services to older adults, and Uber, Lyft, and taxis are always options. The goal is to be able to show your parents that giving up the keys doesn’t mean giving up their independence.”

Bringing up the subject during a parent’s visit to a healthcare provider is an approach that has worked for many adult children. “You can mention your concern during the appointment and ask the healthcare provider to rule out any medical issue that may be causing issues with driving,” said Susan. “The healthcare provider could be a primary care doctor, a neurologist, an eye doctor, or even an audiologist. Most older adults will heed a suggestion from a healthcare provider that they would ignore coming from an adult child.” 

If you opt to have the talk outside of the doctor’s office, choose a quiet time of day without distractions. Make it a point to involve your parents in the conversation and set the stage for an open, ongoing dialogue. Give mom or dad space to talk through their thoughts and feelings without interrupting them.

Above all, approach the discussion with empathy. “Deep down, your parents may know that their ability to drive is compromised and they may be frightened,” noted Susan. “A little compassion will go a long way.”