Here’s a new report that surprised me.
Advising adult children about how to tackle difficult subjects with aging parents makes up a good part of how I make a living. I listen to their stories and struggles every day. Most people seem to have the worst time talking to aging parents about finances and control over other life changing decisions. But a study done by Pfizer, in conjunction with Generations United, suggests that finances are not the hardest thing to discuss with aging parents.
Their study, part of their Get Old wellness campaign was aimed at sparking a candid conversation about aging. Reporting on it, Pfizer relates that “Respondents said the hardest conversation to have with elderly parents is telling them to stop driving and hand over their car keys – more difficult (39%) than talking to parents about their final wishes or wills (both 24%).”
I wouldn’t have guessed it. Although I have run into the problem of aging parents who refuse to give up the keys many times, and I have written and spoken about it in many venues, I would not have put it at the top of the problem list for adult children.
The explanation as to why respondents found it difficult, however, is quite understandable. Driving is perhaps the ultimate symbol of independence and control. An elder is likely going to feel trapped if he is required to give up driving when he is accustomed to that freedom. Loss of control is a fear for anyone, especially for aging parents, who may be also feeling loss of control of their physical health.
From studies on the subject, we know that most people will relinquish the keys when asked to do so and when the time comes. But there is still a sizable number of seniors who adamantly refuse to even consider it, in spite of accidents, and urgings of family. I have encountered them and coached the adult children in how to address the resistance. In the worst cases, it takes legal action to get the elder to give up driving.
If you are facing the problem of an aging parent who should give up driving and don’t know how to begin, here are some tips:
1. Get in the car with an aging parent whom you suspect is not safe behind the wheel. Observe her driving. She should be able to follow all the rules of the road without prompting. Keep notes. Notice how your aging parent handles turning, changing lanes, maintaining safe speed and being alert for oncoming traffic. Your observations can become part of the discussion about your parent’s driving and you can explain why you are afraid of their driving now. Here is a checklist to help you. http://www.caregiverslibrary.org/Portals/0/ChecklistsandForms_DrivingAssessmentChecklist.pdf
2. Acknowledge that this is difficult for your aging parent and approach the subject respectfully. You can say, “Dad, I know this must be hard for you, but we need to talk about your driving”. Then use whatever incidents you are aware of that led you to understand that Dad should not be driving. Accidents, vision problems, dementia, small strokes, etc. can all be very good reasons to give up the keys.
3. Figure out alternative transportation. Whether it will involve hiring a driver, using community based senior transport services, or having family members pitch in, you do not want to leave your elder feeling or being trapped and deprived of participation in his normal outside activities.
4. Request retesting for the driver’s license if your state allows you to do so. Many people who should not be driving can’t pass the driving test, but have a license that is not going to expire for a long time. Retesting will reveal that they should stop driving. In my state the request for retesting driving can be anonymous. A physician can make the request as well. Contact your department of motor vehicles website to find out what is needed in your state to request retesting.
5. Have a family meeting about the subject of driving. This should be done with advance planning by all concerned. Respect and tact are essential. If you are worried and others in the family will back you up, it may be enough to convince your aging parent to give up the keys. Be politely insistent. The safety of every person on the road and every pedestrian in your parent’s path is at stake.
Most adult children do not realize that memory loss in an aging parent and driving problems are linked. One may lose track of the task of driving in the same way she loses track of the conversation. Driving is a very complex task, requiring attentiveness to numerous stimuli at once. There is a lot at risk with any parent who has memory loss and is still behind the wheel.
Even if the conversation about giving up the keys is difficult, it is important for adult children to initiate it. Elders may not have the courage to self limit driving and may need a prompt from you to take that painful step. Your kind help can keep your aging parent and others a lot safer.
Until next time,
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.