Role Reversal: Returning the Favor – Keeping Parents Safe Behind the Wheel

I couldn’t have been more than 16 years old, and certainly had less than a year of driving experience, when my dad set me straight one afternoon in a parking lot in Richmond, VA.

Thinking I could just zoom through the largely empty lot at breakneck speed, diagonally across the marked parking spaces, was my first mistake. The second was to believe I could get away with any sort of rebuttal to my dad’s appropriate comment: “You sure are young to be sounding so much like you know it all.”

As I look back on it now, I think what my father was saying that day was that I hadn’t acquired enough maturity and experience for him to fully trust me with the responsibility of operating a car by myself. And he was exactly right. Then again, your average 16-year-old thinks they can rule the world on a daily basis. At that point, I had the ability to drive, but not necessarily the skills of safe driving that only experience can offer. My father appropriately acted as the parent that day, putting a check on my teenage hubris.

But what do we as children do years later, when the proverbial shoe may be on the other foot? How do we intervene when we start to see changes in our parents that concern us, things that may impact their ability to drive safely, handle their finances responsibly or live independently?

Use your own power of observation to see how your parent is doing. Sit in the passenger seat sometime and let your mom or dad do the driving. Are they still observant and able to drive safely? How is their reaction time? Your common sense, combined with your own innate sense of your parent and their well-being, will be your best guide to any changes you might see.

I would suggest something I’ve emphasized in some of my other columns on these pages the past several months, and that’s to have a discussion with your parent(s) well in advance of any issues that might arise. Talk about their current comfort level with things like bill paying and how you can help if they’re having trouble keeping up. Make it clear that you’re not trying to take over, but instead offering to help when needed. Your parent may realize they need some additional assistance, and it will be a relief to you both to address the situation.

It can be hard for us, as adult children, to contemplate a time when our parents aren’t able to do all the things they’ve spent a lifetime doing. We don’t want to be the ones to tell mom or dad that they have to relinquish the car keys or control of their checkbook. In short, we don’t want to exercise the kind of parental discretion my dad used in that parking lot years ago when it comes to our own parents. We don’t want to believe that our parents have come to the point where they no longer have the skill to do certain things, even though they may still possess the ability.

And undoubtedly, it’s equally hard for our parents to find themselves less independent and more reliant on their children. But with open lines of communication and an understanding that you will always act to protect your parents’ best interests, this moment of role reversal doesn’t have to be traumatic or contentious.

Share your role reversal stories with contributing writer David Hibbard. Email him at: