Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Confront an Aging Parent about Their Driving

Dear Crucial Skills,

My 80-year-old dad is experiencing cognitive decline, has had eye surgery on both eyes, and is deaf. One of my siblings says that my dad is a “terrifying” driver. But no one in the family is doing anything about it, probably because they’re all busy raising families. How can I talk to them about my dad’s driving? And how can we talk to our dad, who will not take lightly his car keys being taken by his children?


Dear Concerned,

I am sorry to hear about your father. It’s never fun to watch your parents age and decline in their abilities. Your concern for his driving is appropriate, as is your concern for how he will respond to the conversation. No one wants to admit, let alone experience, limitations that come due to aging.

This is a conversation that many people will face with their parents. While for your dad it’s his vision and hearing, for others it could be medical conditions that impair their abilities. Regardless of the limitations, the challenge a child faces is convincing a parent that they are now placing themselves and the public at risk.

My guess is your father, while aware that he’s no longer as keen as he once was, probably feels that he’s still capable. In addition, he may see surrendering his keys as the end of the life he’s always known. Lost is the ability to visit others, or go to the store, or even go out to eat. You see driving as a danger. He sees not driving as a loss of freedom.

So how do you bridge the gap? How do you help him understand that in his current state he shouldn’t be driving? The potential is for you to argue your concerns and for him to argue his counterpoints. That accomplishes nothing and may damage your relationship.

It sounds like your siblings agree and have the same concerns about your father’s driving. It may make sense to have a unified front and to visit with your father together. If that’s not possible, this may be something you have to do on your own, representing the family.

The real question is how do you make your father’s surrender of his car keys his idea? Or, at the very least, something he agrees to do? Here are some suggestions to help you in this quest:

Focus on what you really want. As you speak to your father, begin by letting him know that you’d like to talk to him about his driving and some of your concerns. Share your good intent. One of the best ways of doing so is by contrasting what you do want with what you don’t want. You feel it’s time for him to stop driving, but you don’t want him to feel like he’s losing his freedom or mobility. You actually want to allow his mobility without the potential risks of his driving,

Use facts to explain your concerns. While you and your siblings may feel as if your father’s driving is “terrifying,” explaining that to your dad will trigger a defensive response as he digs in and defends his stance. What makes his driving “terrifying?” Share the facts of your father’s dangerous encounters while driving. Begin with his most recent and add others that support your concerns.

Invite him to share. The key is to engage in dialogue rather than a monologue of you telling him it’s time to turn in his keys. Remember the goal is to help him to decide to do so. After sharing your facts (what you’ve noticed) and your concerns (why it matters), ask him to share his perspective. Inviting him to participate in the conversation will help him feel included in the final decision.

Seek a mutual purpose. Avoid too much focus on the dangers of his horrible driving and that he needs to stop driving. Instead, focus on finding a solution that makes doing so acceptable in his eyes. A mutual purpose is a win-win for both you and your father. Explain you want to find a solution that allows him the flexibility and freedom he seeks, while at the same time avoids the potential dangers of him driving with his limited vision, hearing, and cognitive decline.

Come prepared with suggestions. It may be helpful to do some homework before approaching your father. Look into the options available that will help your father maintain his freedom as well as allow him to stay connected with others and do the things he wants to do. Maybe you can teach your father how to use rideshare services like Uber or Lyft. Doing so will help establish your intent that giving up the car keys doesn’t mean giving up on life. This may improve the likelihood of your father making a smooth transition.

Best of luck to you as you approach this difficult conversation.

If you’ve had experiences delivering difficult news to an aging parent, please add any insights you have learned in the comments.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

17 thoughts on “How to Confront an Aging Parent about Their Driving”

  1. Erin Rauser

    If the writer’s father is still not open to giving up his keys after the crucial conversation, it may be worth engaging his medical provider(s) and/or attorney(-ies) for assistance. Sometimes those concerned parties who aren’t members of the family can be a better source of crucial conversation than a child. (If the father respects their guidance.)

  2. Patti

    I attended an excellent workshop with an eldercare specialist years ago. One thing I remember clearly is the conversation about giving up the car keys. The recommendation was to have the child who the parent was most inclined to take advice from hold the conversation. The presenter authored a book with a lot of great advice–Mom, Dad, Can We Talk?

  3. Heidi

    My mom broke her leg and that stopped her from driving “temporarily”. But she also had macular degeneration, and was already uncomfortable behind the wheel, especially at night or in busy areas. So by the time she experienced the fracture, she had already limited her driving pretty extensively.
    We did not argue when she said that “someday” she would drive again, nor did we focus on her own safety. After all, she was an 87 year old woman who was sharp as a tack and very capable of making her own decisions. We decided that, to some degree, her own safety was her decision (we did not want to see her hurt of course, but we treated discussions about driving like we would with an impaired friend of our own ages). Instead, we focused on the safety of others and, as you suggested, found other ways for her to maintain her transportation independence. My mom never drove again, but in truth because we spoke with her about these issues as one competent adult to another, we helped HER make the decision for herself. She never felt we “took the keys away.”

  4. margaret christensen

    Divine intervention and perfect timing. I am so grateful to you and over a decade of more loving connections and communication. Patti a copy of Mom, Dad, Can We Talk is on order.

  5. Rebecca Everett

    I share this so not to contradict the expert’s answer, rather to add to it.
    This approach worked up to a point with our parent, that point being when the impairment of memory loss/confusion impacts the part of the conversation when we present historical facts. He countered the facts with confused explanations, mixing up timeliness and other details. As much as we want him to retain decision-making power, his cognitive functions no longer serve. With the help of elder care experts, we’ve started to make major decisions for him and present them to him, rather than getting his input prior. He is always very angry and lashes out. But we have a pocketful of minor decisions and options that he can make, such as time of day for a PT appt or menu choices, and redirect his attention with those.
    This is an artful and taxing process and never smooth. But, it’s necessary at this point in his aging journey.

  6. Shelley M Parson

    I assisted my aunt in the care of another aunt who was struggling with Parkinson’s. It became clear that she should no longer be driving. My aunt who was in charge of her care was not looking forward to that conversation, but when the conversation was actually had it came out that my struggling Aunt had actually become quite frightened of driving and was only continuing to drive because she did not want to burden anyone with having to take her places. Sometimes, it’s actually a relief for them to know they can hand over the keys.

  7. Elizabeth Richards

    First, let me say that this is hard. But also an honor. You’ve worked hard at conversation skills and now you are the one to pick up this task–maybe because you are the best one to do it with dignity for your father. And that is a huge gift to everyone.

    Second, This is a much bigger change than you think it is. I had this conversation with my Mother 8 months ago. She hadn’t driven since she had moved to assisted living a year ago but she suddenly brought it up. It’s probably the hardest conversation we ever had (and I’ve been helping her for 12 years.) Not driving seemed to get at something fundamental for her–not merely a loss of freedom but some loss of self. Who am I if I’m just a big baby to be carted around by others?

    Consider your father’s values. How does he define himself? By helping other? Being independent? How do those change without a car? How can your father express those values without a car? It can help to consider that your goal is how he can remain whole while serving the larger community.

    Some practical thoughts:
    Contact a local driving school. They can provide a driving assessment. They may not be willing to make a judgement but they can give you facts about what they observe. (And maybe he’s not that bad or can restrict his driving to a few blocks.)

    Find and start using alternatives before you have the conversation.

    If appropriate talk about some positives like what will he do with the money from selling the car? Mother picked some big ticket charitable contributions like funding a water well in India. Maybe get a grandchild to teach him about Uber and they can go on an adventure together.

    Good luck and God Bless.

  8. Gayle

    I try to use Crucial Conversation techniques with my fiercely independent mother whose vision and cognitive abilities are both declining. For the most part they’ve been incredibly helpful, however, we got stuck on the driving issue.

    On the advice of my brother-in-law, during one of our conversations I asked her, “Well, so are you planning to stop driving before or after the accident?”

    She responded that she wasn’t really concerned about getting injured, because her mini-SUV was very safe and she never drove very far or very fast.

    I responded, “I think that could very well be true, but what about the pedestrian you didn’t see? ”

    Two days later she called to say she’d decided to stop driving.

  9. Debbie Howard

    I had this conversation with my Dad after he had a stroke and was in Assisted Living. My dad always loved his cars and took excellent care of them. We decided to leave his car in the Assisted Living’s parking lot. He did not have the keys, but he really liked being able to see his car and think (maybe dream) of driving again. It wasn’t long before he decided to give his car to a grandchild. But it was his decision and he didn’t have to quickly adjust to not having a car.

    1. Elizabeth Richards

      That’s beautiful. How lovely to give him the time to dream and adapt on his own.

  10. Lynne Stroyne

    There is a point here that is not addressed. Especially in the US, when you take away the ability to drive, there is little to no services/public transportation for your loved one to use. When you enter this stage, you better be willing and able to be a driver for them or hire a driver. Ride share services are not plentiful in all areas and using an app is not always feasible for an older person.

    1. Elaine

      Thank you Lynne. In the area where we live a car is needed for medical appointments, groceries, going to church and social activities including even the Senior Center. When my in laws reached this stage our children were in High school with lots of activities. My in laws lived an hour away and all the adult children worked. They had many appointments and neither could drive due to physical and visual impairments. Even with taking the adult children taking turns it was a lot of support.

  11. Tom

    I went through this recently. And Iwould recommend one other step prior to talking to Dad. Evaluate his driving ability yourself if you can, and get more than one siblings input. Go someplace with him and let Him Drive. If he prefers that you drive, that is a tell. Talk to him about where he is driving. He may already be limiting himself to what he is comfortable with. And Find out what special rules may be in place in your state for deaf drivers.

  12. Teresa Barry

    I also encourage you to research your community for senior services. In my area, we have an organization that provides free on-call rides for seniors so they can continue experiencing independence after their driving ceases. Check with state organizations to get referrals, call a 2-1-1 info system, etc., to find existing services that might not charge seniors (call a large church in the area that might be able to point the way, as they likely know who provides free rides to their facility!).

  13. Terri Davis

    We experience the situation with my cute very active 91 year old favorite mother-in-law 🙂
    We met as a family after some of her friends had relayed a concerning driving experience to us, but who had not had the courage to talk to her about it.
    As siblings beforehand, we asked questions of each other and shared our individual experiences of what we knew first hand then organized a time when we could meet together as a family so we could get her perspective and also relay our concerns. We let her know we wanted to talk about some concerns with driving a few days ahead of time, so she could be thinking about that.
    We asked if she felt that things were good with her current driving situation to start the discussion- this provided insight and content for our discussion-her perspective provided a framework to work from.Asking a question instead of starting with assumption is such a great tool!
    We formatted the discussion using what we did want (for her to have control of her schedule and activities, and ability to participate in her normal, comings and goings), and what we didn’t want (her to feel devalued, lose control of her independence in a way that negatively impacted her social life and systems and for passengers to feel unsafe or get hurt or killed in a tragic avoidable traffic accident).
    We also built our discussion on some of her self- regulating habits she had already put in place such as not driving after dark and distances longer than outside of a smaller driving area.
    Importantly, after we had expressed our concerns, and listened to what she was thinking and feeling, we agreed to meet back One week later so she could help us come up with a plan that was workable for her and us. Giving her that week of time to come up with alternative ideas was key and leaving her in control but with the added knowledge of our concerns.
    This required some changes on our part as well – we made ourselves more available to help drive her to her activities, we started participating in a grocery delivery program- she made out the shopping list and we helped her put it in the computer 🙂 she learned to love and actually, look forward to this, we checked with her and with her every Sunday so she could tell us what she needed help with transportation wise for the week 🙂
    This blessed her and our lives in many ways, and continued to open the door for great communication about other aging related concerns as they came along.

  14. Nicole

    My dad had dementia. In the early years the conversation could take place AND he continually forgot the plan. As dementia progressed the conversation would not go well angry outbursts with chasing my father through neighborhoods would happen. We did many a loving actions to get my dad off the road and move my parents close to us. Physically he was in better shape than my mom who is still doing well. Dad would always slide into the drivers seat first. My story as many people who live with people with dementia continues for 10 years. In short, we flew in my dads brother and hid his RV. My sister or I would grab car keys when going some place and hop in the drivers seat first. My dad would complain. We would usually say something positive and upbeat about him being able to relax and enjoy his surroundings. He would love to sing so music or sing to move his mind away from the focus of wanting to drive helped. Due to loss of eyesight he would often think we were about to hit into a car or a car was too close to his side. This would case cursing and emotional outburst as well as thinking he should drive. We never denied what was happening and how freightening it was but quickly would move the emotions back into something more positive.
    Teepa Snow OT trainings online were incredibly helpful. She has a ton of free information as well.
    Best wishes for you, your dad and your family.

    1. Sandy

      Nicole, thank you for the lead on the Teepa Snow trainings. I had seen them earlier in my research on dementia but could really use this work now. My mom has dementia, and I want to care for her well.

Leave a Reply