Q: My 86-year-old father is still driving, but he’s started getting lost regularly and last week scraped another car in a parking lot. How can I take the car keys away from my elderly parent?
Of course, it’s not really about the car. It’s about taking away someone’s ability to do so much. Without a car they are completely dependent on someone else to run errands, or just to get out of the house.
So, when we talk about how to take the car keys away from an elderly parent, we are trying to problem solve from a rational standpoint—that it’s dangerous to be on the road. But for them, it’s potentially their last hold on freedom, and it signals a scary decline from which there’s no turning back.
If the car is a passion, or a hobby—something that your father enjoys tinkering with, or has rebuilt, then the loss is even more profound.
Given all that angst surrounding the topic, I suggest you give some careful thought to two key points. First, choose an optimal time and place to bring it up. And second, don’t think of this as a one-time conversation that will have your desired outcome.
How to take car keys away from elderly parent is all about the “when and where” of the initial conversation. When is the best time of day for your dad, or the best period of time? That doesn’t mean harmonious—don’t think that if you choose the right time and place this conversation will magically go well. It just means choosing an appropriate time and place when Dad isn’t distracted or worried, and is open to listening.If you know you are about to have a significant conversation with your father, create a time for it. Be intentional. Take Dad to lunch or out for coffee. Help him with a project around the house, or take him to run an errand.
When you bring up the topic, show your concern, and that you understand what this means to him. I suggest using a technique called "mirroring." When your father talks, validate what he says by repeating it back to him with a phrase like "So, you're saying...." or "What I'm hearing is...." Whatever feels natural for you to say.
I think of these conversations as planting a seed. Identify your concern, listen to your father's response, validate his thoughts, and thank him for talking about it. You probably won't reach resolution at that moment, but you've planted a seed for further conversation later.
Ultimately, Dad may still choose to hang on to those car keys as long as he can. That’s understandable. And that’s why this is probably an ongoing conversation.
Now, if you find you are spending too much time to convince him, then maybe you can reallocate your time. Try setting up resources for him, like scheduling a ride sharing service for him to try, like Lyft, Uber or Go Go Grandparent https://gogograndparent.com/. Or maybe you can drive him to a regular appointment, creating shared time together.
Whenever you can, honor your relationship. If it’s one of love and laughter, I would use that same tone in this conversation, and even after the conversation if it doesn’t go well. And if it doesn’t go well, don’t look at that as a result of you not doing things properly. This is just really hard on everyone, both you and your dad.
Ultimately, there are times when we have to make the greater decision because of safety. I don’t advocate physically taking away the keys except as a last resort, as this blow can be devastating for Dad’s self-image, his mental health and his relationship with you.
If safety issues compel you to take car keys away from an elderly parent, try to do it with compassion and empathy. Don’t underestimate the impact this has on Dad, and don’t over simplify it just to make it easier for you. Look at it as removing his independence, permanently. Respect that, because there’s no way it’s not going to sting.