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The Sensitive Conversation

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Dr. Dale Atkins

Caregiving / / October 02, 2014

Senior boarding

Last week we share Dr. Dale Atkins article on Aging and Driving. Here is Dr. Atkin's follow up article on how to have the sensitive conversation with your loved one to let them know it's no longer safe for them to be behind the wheel. 

Sometimes a person doesn’t realize how unsafe their driving is. Or perhaps they know it’s unsafe, but they’re afraid of giving up the keys for fear life will close in on them.

So we get to the sensitive conversation: How do we talk to someone we love—a parent, a sibling, a friend, perhaps even our child, and let them know that we don’t think it is safe for them to drive any longer…for whatever reason…physical, mental, or emotional?

We need to know when to talk: It would be very helpful if we would have the conversation about how we will know when it is time for us to stop driving before there is ever a problem. We can talk with friends and family members and discuss what each person thinks about it for him or herself. It’s so much easier to talk about difficult issues before they arise and a decision must be made.

Who should talk to them: If you know someone needs to stop driving because it is no longer safe, think carefully about who would be the best person to have the conversation with them. Is it a spouse? A child? Children together? (will the person feel their children are ganging up on them? If there are tense family dynamics that make it hard for people to talk openly and trust one another, would it be better to have the family doctor, optometrist, trusted caregiver or close friend tell the person they must no longer drive? Difficult conversations about anything such as driving, finances, medical issues, and housing require planning. As important, these conversations require an objective assessment of your relationship with this person. In addition to thinking about who is the best person to have the conversation, it is also important to think about when and where the conversation will take place.

Where to talk: Would it be best to have the conversation while sitting in a park or in the living room (with the television turned off)? Many important conversations have happened in a parked car where two people can be alone and away from other people as well as distractions. For some people having a difficult conversation in a restaurant would just lead to indigestion and public tears.  For others, it would be the best place. So pick your time and place with care.

Communicate with Respect and Compassion: When you talk, be clear about why you think it is unsafe for them to drive. “You’re a terrible drive and a menace on the road. I’m taking your keys!” is not a good way to start a conversation.  Generally, as with most important issues, this is not a one time, long, arduous conversation but a series of short and focused ones.

Be mindful of your:

  • Time
  • Tone of voice
  • Volume
  • Facial expression
  • Body posture
  • Distance from the person
  • Distractions

Begin simply and avoid being combative. Invite and engage the person to share their feelings about driving and if he or she has concerns about their own driving. Try to explore them together. Remember that your role is as much a listener as a talker! When you listen to the person’s response, try to sense what they are feeling.  Think of how YOU would feel if the roles were reversed.They may respond with anger, but under that anger, is probably fear.  Listen to and address what you think they are concerned about.

Resources: It is important to know what resources are available to help the people you are concerned about maintain as much independence and activity as possible.Think of the places they like to go most often. How could they get there? This helps the person know you are concerned about their independence and welfare, too.


There are MANY driver education and assessment programs for seniors to help them assess and maintain their skills as well as to remain current on laws. The American Automobile Association (SeniorDriving.aaa.com), AARP, and Helpguide.org are three good places to start. In most states, there are Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialists, most of whom are trained Occupational Therapists who often work in tandem with neuropsychologists and other professionals. Together they assess vision, physical and cognitive capabilities.  Contrary to what some might believe, because someone had a stroke, experiences some memory loss, or has other issues, they do not necessarily have to give up driving all the time. Perhaps they limit their driving to non-highway, or daytime, or with someone else in the car, etc. The DMV is the final arbiter of whether a person can remain a safe driver.

Have brochures, phone numbers, and other information they can look at and keep.

Categories: Caregiving
About The Author
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Dr. Dale Atkins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship expert. For over thirty years "Dr. Dale" has focused on women’s health, work and family issues, aging well, adapting to disability and chronic illness, caregiving, and handling transitions and stress while maintaining a balanced life. The author of several books, textbook chapters, and articles in popular and professional journals, she is a frequent public speaker and guest expert on NBC’s The Today Show.  She sits on non-profit boards whose foci are literacy, tolerance, wellness and community action and she is an active volunteer in her community. www.drdaleatkins.com

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