by Dr. Ken Druck, author, Raising An Aging Parent: Guidelines for Families in the Second Half of Life
Who can forget what it was like to give our kids the keys to the family car and watch them pull out of the driveway on their first solo ride? Fostering independence is the one of the most important parts of raising a teenager. If our kids act responsibly, they win our trust and earn more privileges. If they don’t, we’re in for a long ride holding them accountable at every turn.
Then, when our mother and father get older, some of us find ourselves in the exact same position except this time it’s our aging parents. Complaints about Dad’s erratic driving coming from our mother who’s terrified of getting into the car. Or from our father telling us, “Your mother’s driving 40 miles an hour on the freeway. Cars are honking and speeding past us at 75, and she won’t listen when I tell her to get out of the fast lane!”
Talking to your aging parents about the changes in their lives can be difficult. But they are a necessary part of being a good son or daughter, as you will see in my new book, Raising an Aging Parent. Conversations about things like giving up their car keys after they’ve been driving for 50 years or more, moving out of the family home and establishing Advance Directives can be especially difficult. But when the time comes, whether precipitated by a harrowing drive with Dad, a near-fatal accident, or a new health concern that could render them dangerously unfit to drive, we need to have “the talk” with them. And when we do, it’s essential that we approach our loved ones with patience, understanding and loving support.
Let’s use the difficult conversation about their driving as an example of how to approach highly sensitive situations when they arise.
The first step is to have an exploratory conversation with trusted family members — especially siblings and close friends — where you can express your safety concerns, talk about options and propose constructive solutions.
The second step is to gather the facts. Getting your ducks in a row is critical. Organize and write down your talking points for getting them to reconsider driving simply and clearly. Show empathy for how difficult this loss of freedom will probably be. And come up with practical suggestions for helping your parents adjust to the possibility that their driving days may be coming to an end.
The third (and perhaps most critically important) step is to decide who is best qualified to have the talk with them, given their state of mind. You parents may be ready to give up driving; they may know that their ability to drive has been diminished and that they’re putting themselves and others at risk. Or they may be in complete denial, resisting even the slightest suggestion that their driving isn’t up to par. The person who’s best suited to talk with them might be you or another family member; or a physician, priest, minister, rabbi, or close friend. It must be someone they trust implicitly, someone who’s an effective communicator and who can reason with them about an issue as sensitive as this one. The goal of this step is to come up with an effective plan for who and how to best approach your parent.
The fourth step is to coordinate this effort so you’re all on the same page about the plan. Make sure everybody understands what is going to happen, and what role each person will play. The emotional tone of coordinating your efforts will, of course, depend on your parents’ willingness to face the problem and take action. Hopefully, things will go well and you’ll come to an agreement about what is best going forward — but this isn’t always the case, and it may be necessary to resort to tough love. Your parents may become very angry and defensive — the same way your kids did when you took away their car keys — because they view this act as a major loss of independence.
The fifth step is for the selected person/people to have the actual conversation with your parents. This discussion should be loving and supportive — but also direct and factual, with a concrete plan for modifying their driving habits, going for an eye exam, taking a driving test, or leaving the decision to their doctor or the DMV.
Set a positive, caring tone at the outset. Be direct in voicing your concerns, but don’t allow the conversation to escalate into an argument. If your parents respond as though they’ve been backed into a corner, and things are going sideways, you might step back and give them some breathing room. Calmly and lovingly ask them a few open-ended questions such as “Mom, do you understand why we’re concerned?” or “What do you propose as a solution, Dad?” or “What would you do if it was your father and you were worried about their safety?”
The sixth step is to summarize what has been decided in a clear statement to your parents, family, caregivers and anybody else who’s involved so that everybody understands what is now going to happen.
The seventh and last step is to follow through on everything that has been decided. Continue to hold your parents accountable while helping them adjust to their new life and acknowledge the benefits that will accompany this new way of living.
Take a deep breath and give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done. Being a good son or daughter is sometimes very difficult. So is watching your parents get older. You can take pride in knowing that you’ve done the right thing in assuring their’s, and other people’s, safety, and in helping them make difficult but necessary quality of life adjustments.
Please share your stories about the challenges and joys of raising an aging parent with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.