Who’s in the Driver’s Seat? Having Real Conversations With Older Relatives About Diminishing Driving Ability

By Sylvia Nissenboim    
Recently, a friend and I spent a week at the Grand Canyon. Upon our return, a family member picked us up at the airport. Our stories of the challenging excursion ended abruptly as we swerved onto the highway. Instead of blending into merging traffic, my relative slowed down to let the cars that were approaching us from behind have the right of way. As we moved from the merge lane onto the highway, she braked to allow other cars to pass. The Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail looked safe by comparison to our ride home.

Driving is an activity we all view as a right. That is what makes it a highly charged emotional topic. But it should not be the elephant in the room.

While we are aware of the dangers posed by any driver who operates a vehicle while impaired, the difficulty lies in seeing the diminishing driving abilities of our own parents and grandparents as they become older. If you are uncomfortable riding as a passenger in a relative’s vehicle, it is time to address the subject. The first step is to talk with your loved one. But how do you begin the conversation?

First, you should set aside enough time to have a good conversation and frame the discussion as a dialogue. You can start by sharing some of the issues you have observed and then listen to your relative’s response. Then, you can suggest scheduling a physical with the relative’s trusted doctor to check vision, hearing and reflexes.

When you suggest taking these steps, your relative may feel that you are questioning his or her driving ability with the intention of prohibiting him or her from continuing to drive, so it is important to explain that you are acting from a place of concern for everyone’s safety (your relative and others they encounter while driving).

Resources are available to help families approach the subject. For example, AARP sponsors the Driver Safety program, which helps older drivers deal with vision, hearing and reflex problems associated with aging. The Association for Driver Rehabilitation provides families with referrals to specialists who can reteach older drivers how to improve their driving skills. Some recommendations for older drivers include:

  • Restricting driving to daylight hours
  • Avoiding using highways (street driving only)
  • Sticking with driving to and from familiar destinations within a certain radius of home
  • Avoiding rushed situations by leaving early to allow for extra time to arrive

In the event it is determined that it is not possible for your relative to continue driving, the entire family should be aware of the many different options available to keep your loved one mobile without interrupting his or her active schedule. Buses, para-transit and even cabs can be used in addition to relying on family members without incurring significantly greater expenses than the costs associated with insurance, gas and car maintenance. By adding up these costs, you can determine whether exchanging driving with other transportation options will stay within or even below the costs of having a car.

We associate driving with independence. There is a freedom that comes from deciding to get in the car and just drive. Especially if someone has been driving for decades, having a discussion about staying off the road can be difficult. However, it is our obligation to bring up the subject. By doing so, we’ll be keeping safe not only our loved ones but the loved ones of those who travel the roads with us.

About Sylvia Nissenboim

Sylvia Nissenboim, LCSW has been a counselor and coach for LifeWork Transitions for 25 years. She focuses on coaching and counseling adult children of aging or disabled parents and the parents of disabled children. She also has a private practice focused on providing supportive counseling and strategic coaching in the areas of career, health and family transitions. She runs caregiver groups and widow support groups as well as training professionals on a variety of topics ranging from aging parents to stress reduction techniques. For more about counseling for individuals and families, go to www.sylvianissenboim.com.