This Is Tough

When Should I Take The Car Keys Away From My Parents?

Your parents are getting older, and you’re starting to worry. Here’s how — and when — to intervene.

Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock
The Sandwich Generation Issue

On the list of conversations that absolutely no one wants to have, it’s somewhere near the top: telling your older parents you don’t think it’s safe for them to drive any longer. Presumably, you’re having this chat because you’ve seen things that concern you. A stop sign they rolled through, a failure to signal before changing lanes... even a smattering of fender benders in recent years. But you can have a 50-slide PowerPoint of traffic violations on hand, and it won’t mean they will agree with you or even calmly hear you out.

After all, this statement you’re making is likely to cause more than a whiff of humiliation. You’re questioning their judgment right to their faces, flipping the age-old order of things. For much of your life, they’ve told you how things should be. Now, you’re the one doing the dictating. Few parents enjoy this reversal.

But this is, at its heart, a conversation about safety, which trumps their embarrassment and hurt feelings — perhaps especially if your children are in the backseat during these no-longer-sanctioned car trips. So, there is no other option but to speak up. (What if you didn’t, and the worst happened?) The questions, then, are how and when? As you look to answer them for yourself, here’s what to consider.

Do they take medications that may compromise their ability to drive safely?

Are they dealing with chronic pain and treating that pain with medications that may slow their reaction times? Do they take medications that cause blurred vision, a common side effect? Even many allergy drugs and cold medicines can cause drowsiness and reduce the ability to focus on the road. It’s well worth asking your parents to tell you more about the medications they take regularly, and consulting any of the numerous online resources to see if these drugs may pose a hazard.

Have you noticed any signs of hearing or vision loss?

Do your parents often ask you to repeat yourself? Is their TV volume cranked up past what seems necessary, or have they started relying on closed captioning? Do they use reading glasses at home but aren’t wearing equivalent corrective lenses when behind the wheel? These are the subtle shifts that matter greatly, considering how crucial it is that drivers be able to take in visual and auditory cues while on the road.

Do they seem markedly less coordinated than they used to be?

If your parent has been injuring themselves more often — a careless burn from the stove, a fall on their front steps — it may be because their coordination is slipping, which can pose a serious safety concern if they’re still driving. Operating a car requires a driver to do many things at once and to judge distances and speeds at a glance. If negotiating their own home has become difficult, you’re right to think they may no longer be able to perform these necessary functions while behind the wheel.

Can you connect them with an alternative transportation solution?

Many towns, cities, and counties across the country offer shuttle services for older adults, as well as further information to help you have this difficult conversation with your parents. Visit the Administration for Community Living website to see what’s available in your area and access their online resources. The National Aging and Disability Transportation Center also provides transportation options for older adults.

Do you have the kind of relationship in which you can speak openly?

Now we’re getting into the “how” part of this conundrum — that is, how to bring this subject up without immediately being shut down. Even in the best of circumstances, it’s likely that a parent will be defensive, particularly if they’re in denial about changes to their physical and cognitive abilities. Of course, this conversation will go more smoothly if you’re the kind of family that can speak frankly and openly about difficult topics, and if you can all push past your parents’ initial burst of defensiveness.

But if your family simply isn’t that kind of family (which describes a lot of us), think hard about your strategy. You know your parents best: Will they bend to collective pressure, or will a group intervention just make them angrier? Do they do best with one-on-one chats, and if so, who is the best person to deliver this information? If you think more voices are better than one, who can serve as your reinforcements? Your siblings? Your parents’ siblings? Their friends?

Perhaps you have this conversation while at the doctor’s office, with your parent’s physician ready to back you up. Maybe you print out resources — such as AAA’s senior drivers’ self-assessment, which you can ask them to take with you present — or book them a clinical driving assessment to get an ironclad verdict.

Whatever you do, lead with love. You’re bringing this up because you’re worried and you care, and it would break your heart if anything ever happened to them. However the conversation goes down, that’s the most important message to get across.