What Your Aging Parents Want You To Know Before Discussing Their Driving & Housing

Your parents dreaded certain conversations with you as a child. But, now as an adult child and caregiver there are tough conversations to be had with your parents.Getty

Last month Britain’s Prince Phillip collided his Land Rover with another vehicle resulting in a rollover. The accident produced at least two surprises. The first was that the 97-year old Royal was not injured and, second, that he was at the wheel at all.

While there is no clear scientific evidence that reveals how old is too old to drive, 97-years old is old enough to stimulate a public discussion about hanging up the keys. And, indeed, three weeks after the accident, Prince Philip surrendered his driver’s license.

It is unclear how the Duke of Edinburgh came to his decision – on his own, or at the request of the Queen? After all, who tells a royal what to do?

But, while your parents may not be royal, how do you speak with them when it’s time to have tough conversations and make even tougher decisions?

Prince Philip was seen driving a new Land Rover shortly after his accident. Clearly, even someone who has ample resources to meet his transportation needs sees driving as far more than simply getting from point A to B.

Your parents would also like you to know that driving is more than a utility; it is about independence and freedom – a kind of personal sovereignty. Decades after getting a driver’s license, many older drivers still view driving as the personal freedom to decide when to go and where to go. Most Americans over 50 years old live in the suburbs and rural areas. Few transportation alternatives are as responsive as driving for those outside the immediate city limits. Consequently, the emotions that shape how your parent’s may feel about driving is often based upon physical realities.

Those of us that are adult children take our independence for granted and cannot easily see a day when our freedom and mobility may be limited. Moreover, we are so focused (often justifiably) on one dimension of the driving decision, safety, that we are blinded to the wider meaning of what the car keys may mean to our mother or father.

Determining when it is time for a parent to stop driving is a tough decision, but there are others. Another decision that is rife with uncertainty, and often conflict, is when is it time to move from the family home?

Many older adults, and many younger people, believe that your home is your castle. And, that you are the king (or queen) of your castle. But, what happens when your parent’s castle can no longer meet their needs? Perhaps physical decline has made climbing the stairs a Sisyphean task. Or, for some, cognitive decline has made staying home simply unsafe.

Whether it is due to physical frailty or cognitive function, the adult child-parent conversation about moving from home is as much about a parent’s identity as it is about accessible and safe housing.

A home, for many, is more than a place to live; it is a collection of experiences amassed over a lifetime. Within its walls are the places and symbols that remind us where we have been, what we have accomplished, and give meaning to who we are today. As an adult child you may believe deeply that you are only concerned with your parent’s comfort and safety and the conversation being had in their living room is about housing alone. But, your parent sees something else; they may view home as the physical living evidence of a marriage, of raising a family, and of a lifetime of memories.

Hanging up the keys or leaving the family home often places two sets of critical values at odds – freedom versus safety. It is hard to optimize both. Moreover, many older adults believe that the risk they are taking is their own, and may be thinking thank you for your concern, but I have done just fine without your help for the last seven, eight, or in the case of Prince Philip, nine-plus decades.

As Prince Philip’s accident suggests – there can be a risk to our parents and to others. Here are three selected strategies developed by my colleagues at the MIT AgeLab and the Center for Transportation & Logistics in collaboration with The Hartford’s Center for Mature Market Excellence for having tough conversations and making tough decisions with our parents.

Look For Patterns – Age is a poor predictor for most anything, including driving or the capacity to live independently. For example, a Thanksgiving dinner that reminds you that your parents are older is not a reason to demand, as The Hartford’s Maureen Mohyde coined, pass the peas and hand over the keys. Look for patterns of incidents that indicate unsafe driving or the inability to live independently, e.g., consistently leaving the stove on, reducing life to one room. The ability to cite patterns, or witnessing examples of diminished capacity first hand, confirms that there is a problem and may convince a parent that your concern is well-founded and not simply based upon a glancing judgment.

Do Your Homework – If giving up the keys, or moving out of the family home is necessary, do your best to identify real options that don’t simply fulfill needs but satisfy wants and dignity as well. For example, finding transportation options that support fun, not just necessities. Likewise, identify housing alternatives that may include old friends or are located in a familiar town.

Collaborative Decision-Making – If cognitive health is not an issue, try to make the discussion a collaborative decision process, not an edict. Research suggests that most older drivers when confronted with real examples, and provided with real transportation alternatives, will, in fact, give up the keys. Likewise, housing decisions that are made with concern for both a parent’s safety and dignity, are likely to meet with better outcomes and long-term relations.

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