Taking the Keys Away from Dad

A Senior Moment

It may start with an accident, but just as often, it’s more insidious: an accumulation of incidents or small mistakes or observed problems. No matter what its form, the message is clear: it’s time for Dad to stop driving.

Your resolve, however, doesn’t make this any less of a challenging message to deliver and adapt to. It’s one that is becoming more common, as the number of Americans age 65 and older has grown steadily in the new millennium: from 35 million in 2000 to 49.2 million in 2016 (source: U.S. Census Bureau).

Aside from growth in numbers, seniors are also living longer than previous generations. Taken together, this means that there are more older drivers on the road today. And subsequently, there will need to be more difficult conversations about when to stop driving.

Making a Plan

As with any difficult topic, the key to a successful conversation about giving up the keys is planning. There will be resistance. After all, he’s giving up a big measure of independence and control. There may be tears. Many older drivers have an emotional attachment to their car. There will certainly be a struggle. But planning will at least give you some control over the situation and allow you the opportunity to address the issue on your terms.

Here are some considerations to help you manage the initial conversation and anticipated transition.

Find a Driving Alternative

So, you’ve made up your mind to have the conversation with Dad. That’s an important first step, but before you dive into the dreaded talk, consider the logistics of this change. Now that he won’t be driving anymore, how will your father get where he needs to go?

The answer to this question will depend on Dad’s living situation. A city dweller usually has the most options, from public transportation (train, bus, shuttle, etc.) to taxis and ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft. As you move further from the city, however, the list begins to shrink. In the suburbs, ride-sharing apps may still work (although with longer wait times) but public transport can be more difficult. You may need to take on some responsibility for Dad’s comings and goings.

Once you’re beyond suburbs, the struggle becomes real. You’ll probably need to shoulder the majority of Dad’s transport yourself, in addition to whatever commute you have and shuttling around your own kids. The final alternative: take away the need for transportation by moving him to assisted living.

This is not to say that these are the only options or the ones that will definitely work in your situation. The point is to research alternatives as part of your planned conversation so you’re on firm footing post-change.

Discuss vs. Demand

Let’s be clear: you shouldn’t wait until an injury-inducing accident before you start talking about this issue. That may be the unfortunate possibility if there are no warning signs, but warning signs can be plentiful if you pay close attention. The earlier you start the conversation, the less likely you’ll be forced to make a demand and the more likely it will be what you want: a discussion.

As for the substance of that discussion, it’s easiest to begin with your observations and then ask questions. For instance: “Dad, I’ve noticed that you’ve forgotten to turn on your headlights several times in the past month. Is everything ok? What can we do to make things safer?”

Sharing your fears is also a powerful motivator. It’s not only that you’re concerned for Dad’s well-being, it’s about all those that share the road with him. Build a bridge between your responsibility to him and his responsibility to other drivers and pedestrians.

Above all, employ empathy. The consequences of this discussion are significant, not only to your and his daily lives but to the way Dad views himself. Loss of control and independence can severely undermine mental health, and you’ll want to address those losses and their impacts with the utmost compassion.

Involving a Third Party

Despite the above tips, the first conversation may not go well. You may get shut down immediately. You may lose Dad’s respect or attention with a careless accusation. It just may not be the right time. Whatever the reason, a second conversation may be in order or a third, and sometimes you need a different tactic. That’s where a third party comes in.

There are so many other areas of life where mediators or objective third parties can play a role: family therapy, divorce, small claims. Why not for this issue? Family doctors, occupational therapists, aging specialists: all could play a significant role in assessing an older driver and bringing the data and their expertise to bear in making a request to give up the keys.

The idea of using a third party, whether it’s one of the above-mentioned figures, or a national or local program, is to take the family dynamics out of the conversation. Expertise and data speak volumes and provide a more objective view. If Dad can come to the decision to stop driving by himself, through evaluation and reflection, it’s a powerful thing.

Forcing the Issue

If planning, conversations, and objective assessments and reports are not moving the dial, more direct measures may be called for. These include disabling Dad’s car, removing his keys from the house, or selling the car. You could even get the police involved if the situation warrants.

These methods should only be used, however, if you feel Dad poses an imminent threat to others when behind the wheel. Conversation, and early conversation, is still the first and best line of defense.

The Key to Conversation

It’s rare that Dad will want to stop driving off his own volition. It may even be difficult to wrestle the keys away after a major accident. That’s why it’s so important to start the conversation early and determine where “the line” is. Even better is if you can write down the patterns of behavior or actions that will trigger the end of driving and agree to them.

Wherever possible, enabling Dad to make the decision will save the struggle and heartache of forcing the issue and will result in a better, safer situation for your family and all those who share the roads.

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