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Tackling the Difficult Driving Conversation with an Older Relative

The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence

Most of us are safe on the road as we age, and if needed, we automatically adjust our driving to compensate for age-related changes by limiting our driving at night and during busy traffic times of the day.  However, driving is such an important part of staying connected that some of us may continue to drive longer than is safe, and we may need family members to step in.

Look for a Pattern

If you are that family member, you know that the idea of having a conversation about safe driving can be overwhelming and a bit stressful!  The first step when you’re worried about an older relative’s driving is to find out if your concerns are valid.  While it’s easy to jump in the driver’s seat when travelling with your relative, consider getting in the passenger seat instead. Observe your older relative’s driving, paying attention to warning signs such as a decrease in confidence while driving, hitting curbs, scrapes or dents, and confusion at exits.  It’s important to remember that one isolated incident is not evidence that a person needs to stop driving; rather, you should look for a pattern of driving problems that worsen over time.

Choose the Right Messenger and Timing

Once you’ve done your homework and the need for a conversation is clear, be sure to choose the right messenger – the person who has the best rapport with your older relative – and the right time.  Avoid the temptation of bringing it up during large family gatherings or the holidays. This is a sensitive topic and the older family member may feel “ganged up on” – and, if the conversation doesn’t go well it could negatively impact the tone of the entire family event.   Instead, think about the best venue to have a caring and honest conversation.

Starting the conversation is often the most difficult part, and your approach can set the tone for how it proceeds.  Begin in a nonthreatening way that will allow the older driver to feel comfortable expressing his or her feelings.  Opening remarks about how much more congested traffic has become recently or about an accident in the news can be a good way to start a conversation.   You may need to have several conversations, and be sure to have transportation options available so that your relative isn’t giving up their daily routines but instead is transitioning from the driver to passenger.

Although difficult, we know that older drivers trust and are most likely to listen to family members if there are concerns about driving.  And they’d prefer to hear from you rather than a police officer or healthcare professional!  The conversation often goes better than expected; older drivers often believe that those close to them have their best interest at heart.

Follow These Steps

  • Observe your relative’s driving.
  • Prepare for the conversation and do your homework.
  • Choose the right messenger and the right time.
  • Be supportive, positive, factual and nonthreatening.
  • Have transportation alternatives ready.

To learn more about initiating a productive conversation about driving with your loved one, visit our website and download our guidebook, We Need to Talk: Family Conversations with Older Drivers.

AARP’s Driving Resource Center has additional information and tools that can be helpful and AARP has produced an online course for families based on research The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence has conducted with MIT AgeLab:  www.aarp.org/weneedtotalk.

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