Aging Parents and Driving: Having the Tough Conversation

Seniors and driving

As an Aging Life Care Professional™, I’ve seen it first-hand – adult children would rather talk about finances and death with their parents than ask them to retire the car keys. Keep reading for more on how to spot the signs of risky driving, how to have the tough conversation, and ways you can help ease the transition from driver to passenger.

The Toughest Conversation:  Retiring the Car Keys

by Jullie Gray, MSW, LICSW, CMC – Aging Life Care Professional™


If, like many fathers, yours drove a tractor at age eleven, flew bombers during World War II, and helped pay for your first car, the idea of starting “the driving conversation”, even if his driving is now terribly risky, sends shivers down your spine.

Why is it so hard? Americans prize self-sufficiency. There is no question that driving is deeply connected to our sense of independence and freedom. Then there is the practicality of it all; without a car, our parents will have trouble getting to places like the grocery store, doctor’s office, or a department store sale. Opportunities to socialize with others will be tricky too, leaving your suddenly car-less parent more likely to feel isolated and depressed.

What the research shows

Participants in a 2013 Pfizer study about growing older said the hardest conversation to have with elderly parents is telling them to stop driving– more difficult even than talking about their final wishes or wills. That sentiment hasn’t changed over the years. In 1997, the New York State Office for the Aging conducted a survey of over a hundred families and caregivers to understand how they dealt with older driver safety concerns. Seventy percent said it took a year or longer to address the issue once they personally observed problems, heard feedback from others, or their parent actually crashed the car.

Families cited two major reasons for not talking to their loved one immediately. First, taking away independence is a hard thing to do to someone you care about. Second, families worried their parent would never forgive them for intervening.

Though this is an emotionally charged topic, we should not postpone tough conversations because we anticipate feeling guilty. Keep in mind, it’s more important to avoid accidents or death than to avoid talking about unpleasant and difficult topics.

If you notice danger signs and your parent doesn’t, it’s time to have “the talk.”

Signs of risky driving include:
  • Confusion or getting lost in familiar places
  • Difficulty maintaining lane position
  • Failure to stop at a red light or stop sign
  • Scrapes or dents on the car, mailbox or garage
  • Bad judgment making left-hand turns
  • Citations for driving

Some studies have found an association between falling and driving problems. It makes sense if you think about it. Frail older people who fall tend to have more health challenges and often take medications that can impair driving skills. Age-related changes in mental processing speed, vision, hearing and physical function may also cause difficulty. Those at highest risk appear to be over the age of 80 – but many octogenarians have no trouble at all.

What can I do?

My advice – Have that first conversation about driving safety with your parent before it becomes a problem. This can help establish an open dialogue and give your parent time evaluate his or her own skills and find acceptable solutions before a crisis.

But if you missed that opportunity, to increase the chance of a successful conversation after you notice problems, AARP and the Hartford Insurance Group suggest selecting a person the older driver trusts to initiate the discussion such as a spouse, physician, adult child, or close friend.

Easing the transition

Making the transition from driver to passenger is a big step and isn’t always easy or smooth. Giving up one’s driving privileges brings up lots of questions, fears, and challenges. Will I be able to get out of the house as often as I want?  I hate being dependent on other people; how will I manage?  How will I see my friends? Will my family see me as just another burden?

An Aging Life Care Professional™ is a very valuable asset to families struggling with this difficult conversation.  We can help evaluate the situation, and when necessary, develop a plan for driving cessation.  We can also:

  • Facilitate important family meetings to open the discussion
  • Be a sounding board and problem solver if a risky driver balks at the idea of retiring the keys
  • Explain how to utilize formal driving evaluation programs and state licensing reexamination procedures
  • Clarify options for services, transportation and supportive housing to prevent isolation and help alleviate those nagging feelings of dependency

Putting the brakes on driving is a real challenge, but with an Aging Life Care Professional’s™ help, the transition can be much smoother. Find your own Aging Life Care Professional™ at

About the author: Jullie Gray has over 30 years of experience in healthcare and aging. She is a Principal at Aging Wisdom in Seattle, WA. Jullie is the President of the National Academy of Certified Care Managers and the Past President of the Aging Life Care Association™. Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter @JullieGray, or email her at Aging Wisdom has a presence on Facebook – we invite you to like our page.

This blog is for informational purposes only and does not constitute, nor is it intended to be a substitute for, professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Information on this blog does not necessarily reflect official positions of the Aging Life Care Association™ and is provided “as is” without warranty. Always consult with a qualified professional with any particular questions you may have regarding your or a family member’s needs.

Source: ALCA Blog