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Aging Parents and Driving: When It’s Time to Retire the Keys

Portrait of a senior man driving a car

As an Aging Life Care™ professional, I’ve seen it first-hand: adult children would rather talk about finances and end-of-life issues with their parents than ask them to retire the car keys.

If like many fathers yours drove a tractor at age 11, 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 Hartford-Pfizer study about growing older said the hardest conversation to have with elderly parents is talking with them about driving—more difficult even than talking about their final wishes or wills.

Families cited two major reasons for not talking to their older loved ones immediately: first, taking away this level of independence is a hard thing to do for someone you care about. Second, families worry 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. Older adults 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 to evaluate his or her own skills and find acceptable solutions before a crisis. If your mother complains about a close friend’s driving, this is a great opportunity to start the conversation by asking: “Mom, what would you like to do if your driving becomes a concern?”

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 (check below for resources).

Easing the transition

Making the transition from driver to passenger is a big step and isn’t always easy. 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 a burden?

find-a-ride offers a wealth of transportation options throughout the Puget Sound area.

Here are some alternatives to driving that could help ease the transition:

  • Does your parent have a regularly scheduled activity such as a monthly book club or weekly worship service? Find others that participate and could provide rides to and from the activity.
  • Engage family members, friends and/or neighbors you know well and trust to provide regular trips to the grocery store, library, community center, exercise class.
  • Check Metro and Sound Transit bus schedules and bus stop locations near your loved one’s home. Often, buses work effectively for transportation to major retail hubs and shopping areas and offer reduced rates for seniors.
  • Sound Generations (formerly Senior Services) offers both shuttle and volunteer driver transportation to adults 60 and older in King County.
  • Uber, taxis, and other car services may also be an option.
  • offers a wealth of transportation options throughout the Puget Sound area.

Don’t have the time to explore the myriad of choices and coordination? Not comfortable initiating the driving talk? An Aging Life Care professional (geriatric care manager) can be a valuable, objective asset to families struggling with this difficult conversation and can also help with transportation management. Aging Life Care managers can help evaluate the situation, and when necessary, develop a plan for driving cessation. They 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 some careful planning and forethought, the transition can be much smoother.

More information, practical tips and resources:

Contributor Jullie Gray, MSW, LICSW, CMC, is one of the only two Fellow Certified Care Managers in Washington state (the other is her business partner Lisa Mayfield). Julie has over 30 years of experience in healthcare and aging. She is a principal at Aging Wisdom, an Aging Life Care/geriatric care management practice serving King and south Snohomish Counties. Jullie is also president of the National Academy of Certified Care Managers and the past-president of the Aging Life Care™ Association.