How to ask a parent to give up their car keys isn’t usually top-of-mind. We tend to assume everything is fine UNTIL something happens that says it’s not. Suddenly you know that it’s time for “the talk.”
My mom kept driving because my dad felt she didn’t have any problems behind the wheel. She didn’t disagree with him. She should have.
Dad told me he would know when it was time to give his keys up. The problem was that he never knew it was time.
Asking a parent to give up their driver’s license is one of the first tasks that signal you’re entering the parent-child role reversal phase of aging.
So how do you handle an elderly adult who won’t give up their car keys, but should… without a huge family argument ensuing?
Step 1: Put yourself in your parent’s shoes
Empathy goes a long way when faced with having an awkward conversation with a senior adult about his ability to drive safely.
Your parent slowly has to give up control of many things in his life, such as his health or his career. So giving up driving can feel like one more piece of his identity is being taken from him.
Ask yourself the following questions to help you understand how your elderly adult might feel about giving up his car keys:
- How would I feel giving up part of my independence?
- How would I get around town if I couldn’t drive?
- Who would I inconvenience if I give up my car keys?
- How will I know when it is time to hand MY keys in?
Step 2: Observe and communicate with your parent
If you’re concerned about how your parent will respond to giving up their use of a car, try this information gathering tip first:
Ask to go along on a ride with your parent in his car—maybe he can pick you up for an event or lunch out. Make it casual, but mentally take notes on the following:
- Can he read the road signs, especially at night?
- Does his car offer a rearview camera that is self-activated and loudly beeps when he backs up if an object or person is in the way? Same with a turn signal?
- Are the mirrors and the driver’s seat at the correct tilt and height for him to see the road ahead and behind clearly? Is there other technology now available for his car that will make driving safer?
- Do you notice if he struggles with his reflexes, attention, memory, or focus as you ride with him?
Look for other warning signs that your parent may be an unsafe driver and write them down so you can remember them later.
Once you’ve done this, approach the inevitable conversation with respect and concern, drawing from the self-reflection questions mentioned above and your ride-along.
Let your parent know that your goal is to help him keep driving for as long as it is safe.
Gently share your observations from your ride-along.
Discuss possibilities that can improve his ability to be a safe driver.
It may be as simple as getting new glasses, installing new technology in his car, or changing his medication if it is impairing his driving ability. Check to see if safe driving classes for the elderly are offered in his community.
Sometimes cutting out night driving is a good way to start.
Explain that it will be hard for you to ask him to give up his car keys. How would he like you to handle that hurdle when the time comes?
However, if it is clear to you that he is no longer able to be a safe driver, you need to move on to the next step.
Step 3: Help! How do I ask my parent to give up their car keys
Your parent probably isn’t going to hand over the car keys easily. It is often one of the most difficult conversations you’ll ever have with your parent.
Some parents realize that they no longer have the capacity to be a safe driver, but most are in denial.
So take the focus off of them and put it on yourself.
You might call it the “Please Do This For Me” talk.
WHY? Because a parent is more likely to hand over their keys for YOU more than for anyone else, including themselves.
- Draw on your responses to the self-reflection questions you used in Step 1 to take the pressure off your parent a little.
- Ask if they feel they are a safe driver. Give them time to talk while you listen. Remember, everyone wants to feel understood and heard.
- Share what you observed during your ride along that concerns you.
- Express your worry and concern about getting a phone call informing you of a life-altering accident caused by your parent. You’ll never be ready for that.
- Mention how devastated you would also feel if a mother or child are killed in the accident. And you know your parent would feel the same way.
- Suggest alternatives like senior transportation services, Uber, buses, other public transportation or having family drive him to his desired destinations. Offer to test out these alternatives with him.
Step 4: If all else fails…
If all else fails, report your parent to the Department of Motor Vehicles as an unsafe driver. Doing so may save their life.
My mom gave up her keys after a police officer pulled her over for driving down a one-way street. She hadn’t seen his flashing lights or even knew she was going the wrong way.
She flunked the resulting driver’s test. The realization that she could have possibly killed someone, especially a child, motivated her to hand over her keys.
My siblings and I should have had the Please Do This For Me talk with Mom earlier because that little incident scared us spit-less.
Dad… well he refused all our suggestions, so we called his doctor and told him about Dad’s four driving accidents in the last year.
The doctor took it from there and reported him to the DMV as an unsafe driver. (Check here to learn how to have a doctor or family member use this option.)
Dad was furious, but he and others on the road were now safe.
Asking a parent to give up their car keys is one of the most challenging parts of caring for that parent. You want to go about it in a way that honors the Lord and your parent so approach it with love, respect, and options.
Don’t feel you are a lousy child because you have to make a hard decision to keep your parent and others safe. You are being wise.
Talk to your kids about how challenging this is and how you would like them to help you when it is your turn to give up the keys.
P.S. Looking for more? See Navigating the Rough Currents of Caring for Aging Parents