July 9, 2021

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Helping an aging parent make difficult decisions

David Bethuram

As parents age, we are faced with having to discuss difficult topics like the need to decrease or stop driving. It’s never easy to help a loved one make a decision that inevitably limits their independence. For many, the most difficult thing they have to face with a parent is taking away the keys. The loss of driving may mean staying home more, which can be lonely and isolating.

Keeping in mind your loved one’s driving skills, it may make sense to decrease driving, not eliminate it. To maximize their safety and the safety of others, seniors should get their eyes and ears checked regularly and make sure they are well rested. Their car should be in top shape, with all lights working properly. AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety suggests that cars should be easy to drive with an automatic transmission, power brakes and steering, and big windows.

More serious indications like delayed reaction time, misjudgments in traffic gaps, or scrapes or dents on their vehicle signal the need to have the conversation. Beginning this discussion requires forethought and planning. Talk to professionals, request information, and look into resources.

After you’ve done your research, take this delicate subject in steps. Introduce the idea, allow some time for your parent to consider the information, and be prepared to provide answers and solutions to questions. What follows are tips to make the conversation easier.

  • Use compassion when speaking. Be thoughtful. Imagine if someone were saying the words to you. How would you feel?
  • Make it a gradual conversation unless it poses a safety issue.
  • Start by saying you are concerned.
  • Express worry over the other drivers with whom they must share the road. Drivers are hurried and are less considerate and careful nowadays.
  • Suggest that perhaps Mom or Dad should let someone else drive on long trips, or at night, or during busy times of day when other drivers are in a rush.
  • Recommend Mom and Dad stay in town where they are familiar with the roads.
  • Mention that’s it’s best to remove distractions. This might mean not driving with little Johnny any longer so Mom or Dad can stay focused on the road and other drivers.
  • Create scenarios. Talk of the safety of others.
  • If your parent has a condition such as low blood pressure, Parkinson’s disease, vision impairments or hearing impairments that could cause a slow reaction, talk about how this could affect driving and puts him or her at risk for an accident. Those with dementia can get disoriented and turned around. Certain medications can affect reaction time.
  • Validate, validate, validate. Acknowledge your loved one’s feelings.
  • Acknowledge the loss of independence. Be frank but caring.
  • Offer solutions, help to problem solve.
  • Talk about how they will get to the grocery store, the doctor across town, or to visit friends and relatives.

If having the conversation will create discourse, it may be helpful to call in an outside source to take some of the burden out of your hands. A physician is a good place to start. There are also wonderful services and driver assessment programs available through many local hospitals. A driving assessment gives an objective evaluation of skills necessary to continue being a safe driver.

Be patient. Keep in mind that this is a conversation to have through the course of time. Leave information behind for your loved one to review alone. Most of us appreciate time to consider and decide for ourselves. During this difficult phase, remember: skills determine one’s ability to continue driving, not age.

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. E-mail him at dbethuram@archindy.org.)

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