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Taking Away the Car Keys: An Uncomfortable Conversation with Older Parents The SeniorScape™

I was watching episode six from the third season of the TV police drama ‘Blue Bloods’ which aired on November 2, 2012, in which Frank, the son of the former police commissioner and family patriarch, Henry Regan, confronts his father about his driving skills and tries to convince him to hand offer the car keys. It’s no secret that this is a difficult and sensitive conversation for adult children to have with their older parents.

In an initial scene on the subject Henry has now had his fourth fender bender and can’t recall the details of the incident. Frank his son approaches the conversation head-on. The result is an angry retaliatory response from his father in which he tells his son to “go to hell”. This clearly depicts the beginning of a sharp wedge on the subject, not uncommon for many adult children who attempt to have this conversation with their older parents.

The next scene on the topic finds Henry providing written proof from a college student who admits to denting the car on a hurried trip to get to a college class on time.

Subsequently Frank, the police commissioner played by Tom Sellek, approaches his father in a second attempt to have this difficult conversation and repair the fractured relationship. His father continues to retaliate, still reeling from the hurt of the initial conversation. He tells his son he is a great father, boss, and professional, but that he is none of those things to him. Therefore, he is not qualified to have the conversation about whether or not he has the right to weigh in on or make that decision for him.

Throughout the episode in the family home and around the familiar Sunday dinner table, the fractured relationship between Henry and Frank creates awkward moments for everyone present. Henry is no longer speaking to his son Frank even around the simplest traditional dinner table conversations like passing the salt.

In one of the final scenes for this episode, Erin Regan, granddaughter, and prosecuting attorney step in to mediate the situation between her father and grandfather. She explains to her grandfather that the root of the issue for the family is their concern for his safety and well-being. They love him and desire to have him around for a long period of time. Through tears and the obvious love that all characters have for each error, the situation is resolved. Henry admits having the college student's ‘hit and run’ report fabricated and that he had another fender bender backing out of the home’s garage. He has already turned over his keys and his car to one of Frank’s sons whose car was damaged in a fire.

The episode depicts a situation that many adult children experience. Statistics reported from a national poll conducted by Visiting Angels, indicate that 79% of adult children say that “telling their parents they’re taking away the car keys because Mom or Dad is no longer fit to drive” is one of the most uncomfortable situations to have. Even more alarming is the danger represented by the fact that 25% of adult children report that despite obvious safety issues, they would totally avoid having a conversation with their parents. This represents an even risk to older adults and to society in general.

Other statistics from this poll indicate that 61% of adult children believe their parents will be depressed if they can’t drive, 45% say it will damage their relationship with their parents and 42% reported that they had concerns that they would then be responsible for driving their parents where they had to go.

Trauma and injury from minor traffic incidents are well documented and of course, crashes are often fatal. A 2015 report by the Institute of Insurance Information indicated that 20% of all fatal crashes involved a person 65 years or above.

The operative phrase for me in this statement is “telling their parents” and therein is the root of the problem.

This is a gradual conversation that adult children should begin to have long before the actual time when a problematic situation has arisen.

Starting the Conversation:

At the earliest stages, begin a casual conversation about the quality of his/her driving and determine if they themselves are losing confidence in their skills or if there are certain situations on the road which make them feel uncomfortable. This may occur over a period of time rather than a one-and-done situation.

Conversations should be non-accusatory, honest communication between adults and rather than between a child and a parent. One in which words like “we’re concerned” or “we love you” or “we have a situation that we’d like to discuss to resolve for the health and well-being of you and anyone else.” No-doubt a parent hearing their adult child “telling” them what they should or should not, can or cannot, be doing would be a sore point and in most cases, the beginnings of driving a wedge in the relationship.

It's important to understand this is an emotional time for your parent or loved one. For the adult parent, it may even be reminiscent of times when he/she granted or revoked your driving privileges.

There may be other losses he/she may be experiencing that are affecting his/her self-confidence. Try to be empathetic and think about how you would feel if someone wanted to take away your car keys. Would it not seem like taking away your independence and autonomy? Don’t be alarmed if you experience a backlash or verbal retaliation. Understand the root cause and try not to take it personally.

Assure your parent or loved one that there are alternatives so that they will not lose their independence. Nowadays Uber or Lyft offer solutions for older adults so they can continue to run errands, attend social outings or get to appointments. There are also senior transportation services that may available.

As in the episode, bringing in an objective third party may be the best solution to mediate the situation. You may want to consider calling upon a family friend, trusted advisor, doctor, or clergyperson.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are 9 signs which indicate it’s time to start the conversation about driving ability. Here is a list of questions that indicate it’s time to begin the conversation along with suggestions on how to initiate the conversation. It’s important to remember to wait for responses and judge how you proceed at any point in time based on the response you receive.

Nine Signs of Concern and Conversation Starter Suggestions

  1. Is your loved one is getting lost on familiar routes? Suggestion: I’m worried about you getting lost when driving. Looks like you might have gotten distracted and confused. Tell me what happened. We can discuss some safer ways to get around without you getting behind the wheel.

  2. Has your loved one had a near-miss or a recent crash? A Near-miss could involve hitting the curb or drifting between lanes. Suggestion: I’m so glad no one was hurt. I don’t want to think about the possibility of you or anyone else getting hurt if there is an accident. Let’s talk about safer ways to travel.

  3. Are there new and unexplained dents and scratches in the car the senior drives? Suggestion: I noticed some new dents/scratches on your car. Tell me what happened. Let’s explore some safer ways of running errands without you having to drive.

  4. Has your loved one received a for a driving violation? Suggestion: I’m sorry you got a ticket. We haven’t had a conversation about your driving recently. There may be a better way for you to get around so you don’t get a ticket.

  5. Does your loved one have chronic health or cognitive issues that have worsened? Suggestion: Let’s look into getting your health checked with the doctor. Depending on what he/she finds it may the time to explore other ways for you to get around.

  6. Have you noticed that the senior driver drives too slow or fast for the posted speed limit? Suggestion: I’m feeling uncomfortable when you aren’t following the rules of the road. Driving too slowly can be just as dangerous as driving too fast. This could cause an accident and you or someone else could get hurt. Let’s look into ways to get you to places you want to go without you having to drive.

  7. Serious Warning Signs: Does the Senior driver ignore road signs and road markings? Suggestion: When you ignore the signs of the road, it says that your driving skills have changed. That's not unusual as people get older. Let's talk about ways to get you around without you having to drive yourself but so that you can still be independent and active.

  8. Serious Warning Sign: Is the older adult taking medication that may affect driving safety? Suggestion: How are you feeling after taking the medication? If your having side effects it's probably not a good idea for you to be driving. Let's talk about other safer ways for you to do your errands, go to appointments, or attend social gatherings and events.

  9. Warning Sign: Does the older adult suffer from an illness that may affect driving skills? Suggestion: The most important thing is that you get better. Driving can put you in more danger. Let's look at safer ways for you to get around. We can both be more relaxed about your safety and well-being.

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