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How do you break the news to Mom: You can’t drive anymore?

How to tell Mom she can't drive

Driving and aging is a complicated and emotional issue for both seniors and their families. For the older person, losing the keys to the car means a loss of independence. We all know that independence is something most seniors fight valiantly to hang onto for as long as possible. For the family, the toughest issue to face is the fear that an accident could harm their loved one and/or others. 

How should families navigate making this difficult decision and then have the difficult discussion with Mom that it’s no longer safe to drive?! Here is a 4-step process to follow that hopefully will make it easier for you:

#1: Determine whether your Mom can drive safely

The first step is to determine when it’s time to have the talk with Mom about giving up the car keys. Here are the most common issues facing seniors that make driving unsafe:

Physical changes

  • Mobility: Physical changes can make it hard for your Mom to turn her head to look back, turn the steering wheel quickly, or brake safely.
  • Eyesight: Poor eyesight, glasses with an outdated prescription, or eye diseases and conditions such as cataracts, will impact your Mom’s ability to read street and traffic signs, recognize familiar places, and see other cars and people clearly.
  • Hearing: Hearing loss makes it harder to hear horns, sirens, and crossing walk signals. It also impedes the ability to hear sounds of engine trouble. 
  • Reaction time: Old age is often accompanied by slower reflexes. Your Mom may tell you she leaves more space in front of her car, and avoids high-traffic areas and busy times of day. But, her slow reaction in a fast-moving situation may hinder her ability to avoid an accident, as well as the time it takes to get out of the car safely after an accident.  

Cognitive changes:

If your Mom has any kind of memory loss – from Mild Cognitive Impairment to Alzheimer’s and other dementia-causing conditions, her ability to stay focused and alert on the road will be impacted. She may also suffer from confusion and heightened anxiety if she gets disoriented or lost, which further impacts safe driving. 

Medications:

Medications often have side effects that make driving unsafe, such as causing a person to become drowsy, lightheaded, or less alert than usual. Seniors, on average, take five prescriptions daily. It’s important to read your Mom’s medication labels to see whether any of them warn against driving. Additionally, seniors often mismanage their medications. This can also impair their ability to drive.

#2. Understand why it is so hard to talk about this

These very common reasons may resonate with you:

  • Fear of an angry or agitated response
  • Feeling guilty about taking away your Mom’s independence
  • Practical concerns about how your Mom’s ongoing transportation needs will be met and feelings of anxiety that you may not be able to meet those needs [Transportation for Seniors is Being Revolutionized]
  • Not knowing how to accurately determine when your Mom’s driving safety is compromised and not wanting to take away her car prematurely
  • Lack of support from other family members in initiating the conversation or taking action

#3. Have “the talk” about driving

Similar to having the “assisted living talk”, here are some tried and true tips that can help steer your conversation with your Mom: 

  • Acknowledge the change. Giving up driving is a huge lifestyle change and it will take time to adjust to it. But you are here to help.
  • Be positive but honest. Your Mom may feel hurt and disagree with you. Gently remind her that her personal decisions affect the safety of other drivers on the road. 
  • Be supportive, not confrontational. Talk about your concerns for your Mom’s safety and your desire to help her find a solution. Do not criticize her for unsafe driving, or for being stubborn or selfish for not wanting to give up driving. 
  • Focus on safety and maintaining independence. Remind your Mom that your ultimate goal is to support her in continuing the activities she currently enjoys while staying safe. 
  • Talk about options, not limitations. Gather information about local services, such as van transportation through the senior center, nearby public transportation options, taxis, and car riding services such as Uber and Lyft, so that you can offer practical and immediate solutions. Also, speak with family members and have a concrete plan and schedule if you are able to provide transportation.
  • Bring up benefits instead of losses. Talk about the economic benefits and convenience of not having a car (no car insurance or repairs, no digging her car out of the snow, and not worrying about parking).

#4. Enlist the help of your Mom’s doctor

Since there is no national age limit on driving, families often turn to a trusted physician to help navigate this fraught discussion. 

During a routine visit, your Mom’s doctor can have a conversation with her to objectively review her physical and/or cognitive limitations that make driving unsafe. The physician can then make a strong professional recommendation that she needs to stop driving. Often doctors will offer information on local transportation resources. Some also make referrals for their elderly patients to receive an independent driving evaluation that may be covered under their medical insurance. 

Dementia & Driving

The Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center offers excellent resources for families and individuals with dementia when driving becomes unsafe:

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