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February 27, 2014
The Real Issue
Dad Can't Drive Anymore
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


My wife and I visited my parents over Thanksgiving.  My father, who is 80, picked us up from the airport.  He's never been a good driver, and it's gotten worse in the past few years. 

During the trip, I told him that I didn't feel comfortable riding with him on the highway or at night, and asked if my mother could drive when we visit.  He agreed, and was matter-of-fact about it, but it seems to me that his feelings were hurt, and he declined to ride to the airport on our trip back.



I can understand why you asked that your mother drive while you were visiting. There is a point at which a person’s driving is not safe for passengers, pedestrians and other drivers. And if your father’s driving is unsafe, it was perfectly reasonable of you want to ride only with your mother.

But I think you underestimated the weight of your statement. Your father was almost certainly hurt, insulted and embarrassed that you refused to ride with him. He was probably offended that you think you know better than he what his abilities are.

And even if he agrees with you about his driving, he probably feels dismayed, to say the least, at the lack of capacity and independence this implies.

So what you took as a matter-of-fact reaction was probably a mature reaction (i.e. not explosive) that masked a severe hurt, not placid agreement.

Because you hurt his feelings, you should apologize. This is difficult when you can’t be sorry for the content of what you actually said. Instead, you say something like, “Dad, I apologize for the way I talked to you about your driving. I didn’t mean to be hurtful and dismissive.”

However, you can’t un-say what you have already said. What you can do is be more thoughtful about how and what you say in the future.

I have three suggestions for what you can do going forward.

First, put deliberate thought into the way you talk to your parents about issues related to their aging. If driving has already come up, more issues are sure to follow. And you need to have a plan.

I suggest you find a book or other well-recommended resource that will help you fashion a script and develop an approach for talking about driving, their will, powers of attorney, medical eventualities, living arrangements, housekeeping, nutrition, finances, and all of the other issues that come up as a person ages.

These topics are best discussed before a crisis hits, and you need to develop an approach that will allow you to be supportive and helpful without appearing to wrench control away from your parents.

These topics are probably on your father’s mind, too. You might ask him what he thinks and what his plans are for the future. You will get nowhere by simply trying to make decisions for him or for your mother, and trying to substitute your judgment for theirs.

Second, make sure you have at least eight positive conversations for every difficult one you initiate with your father. Don’t make your interactions with him be primarily confrontational. When he sees your name on the caller ID or finds out you’re coming to visit, you want him to think, “Oh, great!” not “Oh, no.”

So when you talk — and you’ll probably have to call more often — talk about positive things. Go through the day-to-day pleasantries and the how-are-you-doing rituals. What is he reading? How’s the weather? How is his knee? Did he enjoy the movie he saw last Friday? These seemingly superficial inquiries show that you remember and care about the little things in his life.

Talk about the past, too. Ask him to tell you about his childhood, his parents, his career, his fish stories. Listen to him reminisce. Pay attention to what he says, to what he wants to talk about, and reflect on what that indicates about what’s important to him. Show by listening that you like to talk to him, to visit him, to hear his stories, and that you value his experience and opinions.

When you visit, be a good guest. Be helpful, but do things his way. If he wants to take the long way to church, take the long way. Don’t nag. If you see things that worry you, refer to the book you got and be deliberate and thoughtful in the way you bring up your concerns.

Express appreciation for him and your mother. Call him when you do a task or use a skill he taught you. Tell him when you think of something you appreciate about your upbringing. Let him know how his influence is with you every day.

Everyone likes to know they are loved and appreciated and that their efforts have paid off. This may be particularly reassuring to your father if he feels sad that he can’t do all of the things he used to do.

Finally, if you have a sibling or close family member who lives near your folks, pay attention to what that person observes about your parents. And particularly note how much time that person spends with them.

Is the amount of time increasing? Does he do more and more for them? What does he say about their needs and capabilities? This information will be important as you try to decide what topics to broach with your parents.

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