Is It Time to Take Away The Car Keys?


At some time you will feel concern or even fear that your parents should no longer drive an automobile.

This is one of the most important deliberations, considerations and possible actions you will probably face as the family caregiver.

A person's age is not and should not be the reason for taking away the car keys. There are people in their 80s and 90s who hold licenses and drive actively and safely, while there are others in their 50s and 60s who are dangers to themselves and others when behind the wheel. The most driving-accident-prone Americans are those aged 15 through 19.

Physical and mental condition and ability are the first factors to consider.

Vision: Conditions such as cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy can hamper driving ability. Your parent's optometrist or ophthalmologist can identify vision problems, limitations, concerns and cautions. It is possible that some limitation in vision can be accommodated by not driving at dusk or night. Some conditions, such as cataracts and glaucoma, can be corrected surgically. If your mom or dad wears glasses, schedule an annual eye and vision examination.

Physical ability: Driving takes dexterity, ability and strength in both arms and legs/feet to control the vehicle at all times. Consider any physical limitations. Consider, too, if he or she has shrunk a bit in physical size, where the solution may be to move the driver's seat forward and upward for both better control and vision over the hood of the car, and/or adding a pillow.

Physical activity: Mature adult drivers die in auto accidents at a rate higher than other age bracket because, at home, many do little or no exercise, not even a daily walk outside. Therefore, if your parent currently does no physical activity to maintain or build strength, agility and aerobic ability, this should be a concern. Importantly, it is probably correctable by introducing him or her to less television time and more physical activity.

Diseases: Patients with Alzheimer's disease can become disoriented almost anywhere, and a severe diabetic may fall into a coma. The parent's physician can advise of such possible problems and risks. But, don't assume that your parent has Alzheimer's if he or she forgets momentarily the location of a wallet, purse or newspaper.

Medications: Prescription drugs are chemicals designed to produce specific and desired changes or functions within the body. But, as in the law of physics, for every action there is a reaction. That reaction may be drowsiness and/or a slowing of the person's reaction time. In the field of medicine these are identified as side effects and may effect, even seriously, a person's ability to drive.

A patient taking several different prescription drugs, particularly if they are prescribed by different doctors who don't have updated knowledge of other drugs being taken, may have even more serious side effects as each of the drugs creates its own side effects plus conflict with other drugs to cause even worse reactions. The latter is known as polypharmacy.

Your parent's physician(s) can advise of the side effects of each drug plus the added conflicts through polypharmacy. You may also take all the prescription containers to a friendly pharmacist who can quickly do a computer-based analysis.

The American Medical Association has published a detailed report and recommendation to all of its physician members that they assist caregivers, answer their questions, and present their recommendations regarding the elder's physical and medical conditions. The report also recommends that the physician be actively involved in counseling the patient to hang up the car keys.

Here are some hints for determining your mom or dad's ability to drive:

Ride along: Take a ride or three with your parent and observe his or her physical ability in controlling the vehicle, staying within the lane, how turns are handled, the driving speed, ability to scan from left to right, any visual susceptibility to glare, and for any possible confusion in traffic. Do your observations simply, without nagging or distraction. Make notes upon return, for you may need to share them with an expert.

Check the vehicle: Periodically and without fanfare, check the outside of the car for any possible dents or scrapes.

Accompany your parent at least once to every medical specialist and service or treatment center and, and have him or her sign a release of confidentiality form naming you as a relative with whom they can share any and all medical and mental information without their violating federal confidentiality laws. If your relative is on Medicare, you can check the Explanation of Benefits (EOB) statements he or she receives after each medical visit or payment. This will ensure that you are aware of every one and service involved medically. These steps will guarantee that you can ask questions and express concerns privately as well as invoke professional assistance.

Research other available transportation for if and when mom or dad must quit driving. A call to the local Area Agency on Aging can learn about Dial-A-Ride, public transit, specialized transit (door-to-door service typically by minibuses) and even volunteers who provide chauffeur service. And talk to your siblings, children and other relatives to be volunteer drivers when in need.

If you determine that mom or dad is still capable of driving, suggest they enroll in a Mature Driving course. Such enrollment may even qualify your parent for a discount on auto insurance.

Here is why you should not jump to a decision or conclusion that mom or dad should no longer drive.

Taking the car keys removes the parent's independence, the ability to drive to the market or to meet friends for coffee, to church and the senior center, the library or to visit friends. The experience can be traumatic.

As the caregiver, you may also have to deal with other relatives who may be too quickly judgmental and even emphatic that the keys must be taken.

Involve mom or dad in the consideration and decision. You may find a positive reaction when talking candidly with them, and they will understand your care and concern for their safety.

If you feel that it is time for them to hand over the keys, recognize that you may run into resistance. This is understandable. However, if that is the case, there are several ways to legally revoke your loved one's license. You just have to find a tactful, loving way to approach this topic.

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Leonard Hansen has hit the nail right on the head..... for sure!

I remember when I had to talk with my Dad. He listened quietly not saying much; but I knew by his manner that he was taking it in. When the time came, later that day, to go to the grocery store; I asked him to come with me and I drove his car.

As we slowly rolled down this quiet side shreet near my parents' condo, I suddenly pitched forward, blaring the car's horn with my forehead; and watcing carefully with one far eye, I waited for him to react. It was quick....and dramatic: "what the heck are you doing?" he yelled. I said: "Dad, this is what might happen to you....a sudden heart attack and you're gone, but you're still careening down the road hitting parked cars and perhaps a mother and her child along the way....and Mom won't be able to help you....she doesn't drive...and she's not behind the wheel!"

"I never thought of it like that" he said. He handed over his keys the next day. They sold the car and that was the end of it. He was brave: he thought about it, realized his "kids" were right, and gave them up....voluntarily. But this had been coming for some time.

I sure wish I had had the benefit of Leonard Hansen's detailed suggestions back then. Now others won't have to go through the "charade" I had to plan out. Hansen has covered all the bases.

It was a very tricky situation and I reckoned that the only way I was going to really get his attention and make an impression was to "stage an accident"so he could see first hand the potential damage he might cause others if he was behind the wheel.

But this is not really the best way to do things....heck I might have hit someone myself while I was showing him.

I was discussing this situation just today with a friend in Colorado who is trying to get up the courage to face his 87-year old Mom who he knows should hang up the keys. Neither he nor his sister are looking forward to this "conversation." I referred him to Hansen's articles here for the answers he needs in this most sensitive of situations we all must face....sooner or later.

Big Mac
If you would not place your child in the car with the elder driving, that is a sign that it is time for the elder to hang up the car keys.
I get so frustrated reading this because nobody wants to deal with it head on. I shouldn't say "nobody," but let's just say "most." I get all the psychological reasons why the elderly don't want to give up driving and why, we, as their caregivers and children, don't want to intercede, but not one of you would think this attitude was acceptable if we were talking about a drunk driver! It's not about praying nothing bad happens or hoping that if it does, it's only minor and enough to show them they shouldn't be driving (they're just going to blame the other driver or the car), it's about keeping people off the road when you KNOW they are not competent. If someone you loved was injured or killed by an elderly driver because their relatives were unwilling to intervene, you'd have a completely different attitude. I live in a community that is filled with elderly drivers and way too many of them should not be on the road. Unfortunately, the DMV only makes them take a written test and an eye exam so most of them pass quite easily.

I also understand that it's a lot easier for everyone, including local government, to allow people to provide their own transportation, even when those people should not be behind the wheel of a car. People are living so much longer now and there isn't enough public transportation for all the people who need it. Still, if you are the person who is caring for someone who is no longer safe to drive, then you, unfortunately, have to be the one who takes that away.

Fine, we don't want to treat them like children. We understand that they are adults and they have feelings and we need to be respectful. We may even need someone to help us with this difficult situation. But bottom line is THEY ARE NOT SAFE ON THE ROAD ANYMORE.