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Sharing Bad News with an Aging Parent

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerry Patterson is coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.Kerry Patterson is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
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Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

My father has Neuropathy in his legs and feet. He has difficulty standing and walking, and we are very concerned about him falling. But what worries us most of all is that he continues to drive. If we approach him with our concerns, he gets angry with us. Do you have any suggestions?

Concerned about Father

A Dear Concerned,

I’m sorry to hear about your father and can see why you’re worried about his driving. Your father is starting to lose some of his faculties and you want to talk to him about giving up the keys. This is a conversation many people will face with their parents—the cause could be due to neuropathy, macular degeneration (my own father wanted to drive up until he was legally blind), or a whole host of other medical problems. No matter the limitation, in each case a child faces the challenge of convincing a parent that he or she is now placing him or herself and the public at risk.

Your father, in contrast, probably knows he’s not as sharp as he once was but is likely to feel as if he’s plenty competent. He also sees giving up his keys as the end to the life he currently enjoys. Gone is his ability to visit his friends and relatives, to shop, and to go out to restaurants and movies. Gone is life as he knows it. You see driving as a horrible risk, he sees not driving as making him homebound, lonely, and dependent. And being dependent may be his worst fear.

How do you bridge this gap? How do you get him to understand that he really is debilitated to the point that he shouldn’t drive—short of him having an accident that makes the point for you? If you’re not careful, you end up saying he’s unfit and pointing out his deficiencies. He ends up talking about the hour a day he spends exercising on the mini-tramp and how his corrected vision is 20/20, and you end up in arguments that miss the point and get you nowhere.

So, here’s the big question. What can you do to make handing in his car keys something your father wants to do? Or something he is at least willing to tolerate?

Answer: Don’t equate taking away the keys with helplessness, boredom, and the complete loss of independence.

Here’s how.

1.  Research before talking. As you prepare to ask your father to stop driving, think of ways to make the option more attractive. Before you ever talk with him, check into methods to help him maintain his freedom. If you come to him with several options that make it clear that giving up the keys doesn’t mean giving up on life, you’re much more likely to help him make the transition in a way that removes the danger, strengthens your relationship, and keeps him plugged into the community.

For example, I googled “neuropathy and driving” and quickly found the Neuropathy Association Web site. Experts on the site recommend places where you can retrofit the car with driving aids to mitigate the effects of neuropathy—making it safe for your father to drive. You could also explore the options of public transportation, having friends or family members volunteer to chauffeur, using a cab service, etc.

2.  Contrast what you don’t want with what you do want. Now, once you’ve done the pre-work, start the “no driving” conversation with a Contrasting statement. You believe he ought to stop driving but don’t want him to lose flexibility or mobility. In fact, you want to make him just as mobile, without having to run the risk of driving himself.

3.  Establish mutual purpose. Explain that you want to find a solution that works for him—one that makes his life just as rich and fulfilling as always.

For example, I have a friend who (fifty years ago) thought car ownership was a horrible waste of resources, a blight on the planet, and a bad investment to boot (he was a bit ahead of his time). Now, he didn’t move to a cave and give up on life, instead, he made arrangements with the local cab company (and this was in a town of only a few thousand people) to take care of his transportation needs. He paid the company an annual fee and they in turn picked him up and took him wherever he wanted to go. He had to call them and sometimes wait a few minutes, but for the most part, he got exactly what he wanted. He also walked more than many of us and made arrangements with a limo company for longer trips. When you consider the cost of a car, gas, and insurance, Harry swore his methods actually saved money.

My friend taught me that there is life after key removal if you make the right arrangements. Seek to find a similar solution that will satisfy you and your father.

4.  Use facts to explain your concerns. Share the facts of your father’s most recent dangerous incidents and suggest that you have a few ideas that would remove the risk while maintaining his mobility. Share examples of ways he can get help—both immediate and long-term—and jointly brainstorm methods that work for him.

5.  Keep in mind that your goal is a win-win. Don’t simply focus on the horrible dangers and the fact that he needs to stop driving. Instead, focus on coming up with a plan that makes the option acceptable to your father.

Best of luck with this touchy issue,
Kerry

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

5 thoughts on “Sharing Bad News with an Aging Parent”

  1. As a resource under #4 – “Use facts to explain your concerns,” I would add consulting with a driving rehabilitation specialist, which is an occupational therapist specifically trained to work with elderly drivers. ABC World News Tonight recently did a segment on this – see http://abcnews.go.com/Health/MedicineCuttingEdge/helping-senior-citizens-wheel/Story?id=8632985&page=1 . Click on the “driving rehabilitation specialist” link in the article and then click on Membership Directory on the left to find driving rehabilitation specialists by location.

  2. I have a father with Dementia. He received the official diagnosis earlier this year. He is still able to drive, but we will eventually have this and other difficult conversations with him. Although Dad and I have been close, we have sometimes had a combative relationship. For the last couple of years, realizing that his condition is deteriorating, my sister and I have worked at building the trust in our relationship with him by making sure all our interactions have integrity, by not interfering in areas of his life where he still has control, and by gently and kindly supporting him in areas of his life where he’s losing control — making sure we step in on time and with his permission. Building and maintaining trust, even with or especially with a parent with diminished capacity, makes the tough conversations easier. When my sister or I come to Dad with a concern, he knows that we have the Mutual Purpose of keeping him independent and comfortable and happy for as long as possible while still keeping him safe. This makes him much more receptive to the tough things we have to tell him. Trust and a shared purpose is so important with loved ones and having it greases the wheels of Crucial Conversations.

  3. Kerry,

    Thank you again for another excellent piece of advice. I will be using it shortly with my Step-Mom. At 61 years old I understand how it would feel to lose this freedom. I realize that in a few years it will be my turn to listen to my kids. I like the idea of paying a cab company an annual fee!

    Thank you,
    Stephen

  4. Dementia is a difficult condition to deal with. The state kept licensing our grandmother until we finally wrote a letter. The state took away her license and they became the “bad guy.” Some relatives are very stubborn and it is hard to build trust with them when they have dementia.

  5. A friend recently shared a great suggestion with me, to help in handling this very situation. When his Aunt Mary could no longer drive herself the family convinced her to give up her car. They sold it for her and handed her the money in an envelope with the words, “This is now your cab money.” Needless to say, even an older model vehicle can fund a lot of cab rides, and it seems like a great way to help “Aunt Mary” reframe her situation.

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