My husband’s family recently gathered in Florida to celebrate his grandfather, Papa’s, ninetieth birthday. We spent the day celebrating his many accomplishments, including a successful construction business, two good marriages, three children, four grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren (with two more on the way).
The next day was a bit more somber. The next day, we all gathered again, and as a family we asked him to stop driving after 75 years.
Papa’s neurologist recently confirmed what we had all known for years: he has early stage dementia. While his speech is still good, and his long-term memory is better than most people half his age, his short-term memory—for things like younger family member’s names or recent events—has been slipping.
For years we had joked that driving with him was more terrifying than riding a rollercoaster. We adapted our plans to limit his driving by meeting him at his home. Or we’d ask him to refrain from traveling to meet us, to keep him off the road. This latest diagnosis and its continued mental changes reaffirmed that restricting his driving was not enough. He needed to hang up his keys for good.
Our family assembled in the living room in a large circle. My mother-in-law began, “Papa, we are very concerned about your driving. We all think you should stop.”
Papa laughed and said, “No.”
I could see him shifting in his chair. I could tell he was anxious. My mother-in-law continued, “The doctor said you shouldn’t drive anymore because of the Alzheimer’s. You could hurt yourself or, God forbid, someone else.”
But this approach of “we don’t want you to drive, and the doctor doesn’t want you drive” was not working. Papa has accomplished so much in his life: he is a concentration camp survivor who came to the USA with $70 in his pocket. He went on to build a successful business, support a family, contribute generously to charity, and care for his first wife until her death. But we were focusing on what he couldn’t
do now, instead of acknowledging that he was more than capable of many, many things.
Our message was coming across as a condescending threat to his sense of personal independence. While he wasn’t communicating that perception verbally, his body language clearly communicated his discomfort and fear.
“It seems like driving is really important to you,” I said, while positioning myself next to him on the floor. He was now seated in a chair, above me. In choosing to sit on the floor, I wanted to let him know he was still in a position of power. I took his hand and continued, “I know driving makes you feel independent, and we don’t want to take your independence away. The doctor said even though a lot of things in your brain are working right, the dementia is making it harder to focus and make decisions, and those are pretty important for driving. Could we try to come up with some other options that let you go where you want but don’t involve driving?”
I wanted to empower him to make a choice that was in alignment with our goal but not in a way that felt too final.
We agreed to a two-week trial where he wouldn’t get behind the wheel. We downloaded a car service app onto his wife’s phone. We explained that his annual car insurance premium was actually less than what using the car service would cost in a year. He’s always been a penny-pincher, so appealing to his frugal side resonated with him.
While I could see he was still feeling overwhelmed, he responded that he liked the idea of not spending so much on insurance.
We all thanked him for giving this a try. We had him take the car service home from our gathering so that he could get a sense of how easy it would be. Eventually, when he didn’t take the car service, he still refrained from driving—and let his wife handle the wheel instead.
If you’re facing a conversation with a loved one about no longer driving, these are six strategies that are very effective:
- Solicit your loved one’s input in designing a plan to allow for independence without driving.
- Identify the specific situations in which they typically drive and identify practical alternatives for each situation.
- Come up with trial period to establish a new routine.
- Check in regularly and continue to support their role as respected elder.
- Get the whole family on the same page.
- Be patient—don’t get discouraged if the first attempt to stop driving doesn’t result in permanent change.