It’s not too early to start planning for year-end holidays. And along with decisions about menus, gifts and whose turn it is to host, Kathy Quinby-Johnson urges families to ask a meatier question at family gatherings: How are Mom and Dad doing?
Quinby-Johnson and husband Matt Johnson, both certified senior advisers, own Senior Care Authority. The Eden Prairie-based business guides families through often confounding aging-related issues, from senior housing to care resources to when to talk about the car keys. That last one is timely, especially with winter coming.
A new study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that nearly 83 percent of older drivers report never speaking to a relative or doctor about their safe driving ability. Of those who do, 15 percent bring it up only after a crash or traffic ticket.
But the “key question” runs far deeper than surface level. It’s about dignity and independence. How adult children handle this loaded conversation can lead to relief on all sides — or unintended pain. Quinby-Johnson guides us to the former.
Q: So, the real question isn’t about the car keys?
A: It’s bigger than that. It’s about the loss of independence. Out of respect to our parents, we often avoid challenging conversations, even when we see signs of decline, like the house isn’t kept up so well, food in the fridge has expired, dents or scrapes on the car. But our parents are fiercely independent. We should allow them to help make decisions and remain in control as much as possible.
Q: Might adult children be grieving a bit, too, as they see their parent aging?
A: Maybe it’s grief, not wanting to see your parents declining or acknowledge our own aging.
Q: What mistakes do we make in broaching the key question and aging in general?
A: First, we don’t begin this conversation soon enough, so we tend to end up in crisis-management mode. Maybe our parent has a new diagnosis or change in medication that impacts driving. Or, they’ve been driving and become disoriented or lost. We wonder, “What do we do?” When you’re operating in crisis mode, you’re reactive instead of proactive. Talking early, before a change is needed, allows us to learn what our parents want and develop a plan with them.
Q: This is often when a family intervention occurs. You don’t recommend that strategy. Can you say why?
A: Group confrontation just makes the person feel defensive. Their pride is at stake. What we see sometimes are well-intentioned children treating their elderly parent like a child. These are adults with a lifetime of experience. It’s far better to speak to your parent privately. Ask questions gently. “Is it getting harder to see? To turn?” “AAA has resources to assess driving. Do you want to check them out?” It doesn’t hurt to share your own frustrations on the road: “Boy, it’s crazy out there. How is it for you?” You might find out, as I did with my mom, that she felt fine driving to and from the grocery store, but she hated driving on the interstate. So that opened up the possibility of finding an alternative to freeway driving.
Q: Doctors are often very helpful here, playing the “heavy,” if you will.
A: It’s good for the doctor to weigh in. Don’t use “the doctor says” falsely, but it’s fine to suggest that you go with your parent to talk to his or her doctor. Being there with our parents, we’ll learn what the impact of a diagnosis or prescription might be on driving. Also, they may be more willing to listen to a trusted professional, rather than family, to make this decision.
Q: But, as you learned, it’s important to have a follow-up conversation with your parent after that visit.
A: Yes. Eight years ago, my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She was still driving to the grocery store and church. During that October appointment, her doctor told her, “I think it’s probably OK to drive until it snows.” What I heard was that my mom could drive for a few more months, that the doctor was giving her some leeway. Mom heard, “I can’t drive when it snows.” I remember saying, “Mom, that isn’t what the doctor said. You would feel awful if you caused an accident.” It was the first time my mild-mannered mom was somewhat angry with me, but mostly at the situation. But she agreed, and we got through the transition.
Q: Families might look into one of many transportation options. Do you have some suggestions?
A: Metro Mobility (metrocouncil.org) and DARTS (dartsconnects.org) have good programs. Senior Linkage line (seniorlinkageline.com) has information on transportation and volunteer drivers. Some seniors are using Uber and Lyft.
Q: What if siblings don’t agree?
A: This is common and, often, it’s long-term and has little to do with the issue at hand. Try to stay focused on facts. Dad has had two accidents. Mom has macular degeneration. Try to not get emotional. Consider bringing in an objective third party. Sometimes, though, the most intimate caregiver, who tends to be a daughter living the closest, has to make a decision.
Q: The bottom line, though, is that it’s essential for everyone to listen, without judgment, and with respect?
A: If you really listen to your parent, you’ll realize there is often an underlying message. For most seniors, the message is that they are concerned about not being able to do the things they want to do. Loss of control and independence. It may not be the driving at all. This allows us to say, “I think what I hear is that you want to still go to church and to your book club. I wouldn’t want you to give up those things. That’s who you are. How about if we call Jane to drive you there, and pay her for gas?” Ask your loved one: What is critical that they want to keep doing? If parents realize that you want them to continue staying engaged in life, it can make the transition easier.