Question: My father, who is 86, had his driving licence taken away under a medical suspension about a year ago. He has failed two senior driving evaluations, and keeps talking about driving. We have disabled his two cars, but I am worried that he will find a way to get behind the wheel again. The last time I saw him drive he drove left of the center line, and also was driving in the bike path. I can't seem to get him to understand how unsafe it is for him to drive.
Dr. Amy: As we get older our brains and bodies change. This makes driving more challenging, both mentally and physically. Since each of us ages at our own pace, there is no fixed point at which driving becomes unsafe. It’s different for everyone. The good news is that by reducing risk factors and practicing safe ways of driving, many people can continue to drive safely well into their senior years. This is not the case for your father, since he has failed two driving tests. This is a touchy subject because for many people, cars are so much more than transportation. They’re symbols of freedom, achievement, and independence. When we can run our own errands, we are self-sufficient. And when we can jump in the car whenever we want to, we feel free. No one likes to lose this, so you dad’s feelings are 100% natural and understandable.
I experienced this with my own father, who stopped driving because he had macular degeneration and really couldn't see well. Six months after he stopped driving, he told me he was thinking of getting his driver's license again and buying another car. I reacted with shock and the way I responded made him defensive. Happily, I quickly realized what I had done and said, "Dad, I'm so sorry. I can't imagine what it is like to not be able to drive anymore. I love to drive and I know you did, too. I don't know what I would do if I couldn't drive anymore." My father then shared with me how hard it was to lose his independence and how much he missed driving. We talked about this for a short while and after that he never brought up the idea of driving again. I believe it was because he had the opportunity to express his feelings and to know that someone understood what he was experiencing. Truly, I think one of the greatest human needs is to feel heard and understood.
I wonder if this approach might work with your father. In addition to expressing empathy, is there some unfulfilled dream in his heart that could spur him to sell the cars? If he had this extra money, could he take a vacation or buy something he has always wanted? Lastly, can you help him see how selling his cars is not impractical? Can you help him see what life might be like without two cars in the garage?
In addition to empathy, incentives, and a positive vision, it often helps for people to understand what negative consequence they are avoiding by taking the step you are suggesting. If he is not open to the possibility he could hurt someone while driving, is he open to pressure or threat of a penalty from a leader in the community? If he is a member of a faith community, perhaps the leader could talk with him. Perhaps a police officer, the chief of police, or a business leader he admires could have a word.
Addressing both the practical and the emotional aspects of not driving is important. Without both, your father will have a hard time moving to action.
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