Taking the Car Keys: What to Do If an Elderly Loved One Won't Give Them Up

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At some point, many family caregivers begin to feel concern or even fear that their loved ones are no longer safe behind the wheel. Hesitation to act on this worry is normal, but ignoring it can be a recipe for disaster.

Factors That Contribute to Unsafe Driving

Age alone is not a reason to take away a person’s ability to drive. However, seniors are at risk for numerous health conditions and age-related changes that can affect memory and decision-making processes, the ability to see and hear clearly, reaction times and other skills and abilities that are required for the safe operation of a motor vehicle.

It can be very difficult to communicate your concerns to an elder who is in denial of the fact that their driving has become questionable or straight up dangerous. Dementia poses yet another serious challenge. Although it may seem like a senior with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia is simply denying any changes in their abilities, anosognosia could be to blame. This term refers to a dementia patient’s inability to recognize their own impairment. This is partly why it can be so challenging to get a cognitively impaired individual to stop driving. In their mind they still believe they are fully capable of doing so.

How to Broach the Subject of Stopping Driving

For seniors, taking away their driving privileges can be traumatic and can even cause depression. Losing the ability to drive deals a significant blow to one’s independence. They are no longer able to get to church, go the supermarket, drop by the park for some sunshine or visit friends whenever they feel like it. Instead, they will have to rely on other methods of transportation to do the things they need and want to do. Understand that this is a huge adjustment late in life.

The most effective method for broaching this subject is to have a candid talk with your loved one and attempt to reach a voluntary agreement that it is time to consider alternate modes of transportation. If your loved one still has their faculties, don’t approach the subject as if a conclusion has already been reached without their input. Ideally, you want them to be on board with this new plan and have a say in how they’ll continue to get around town. State why you believe they should not continue driving, such as side effects of medication, impaired vision, increased accidents or traffic tickets, and any other limiting physical or mental health conditions.

The second part of this discussion should focus on viable driving alternatives, such as rides from family and friends, public transportation, rideshare programs, paratransit services and more. This will provide an immediate answer to the inevitable question, “Well, how am I supposed to get where I need/want to go?” If your loved one is reluctant, emphasize that you are making this request out of love and concern for their wellbeing and that of the surrounding community. Ask that they give this new arrangement a trial run for a couple weeks or so. After that, you both can get together and troubleshoot any issues or shortcomings. Remember, though, that this kind of rational discussion and compromise is not likely to be effective for someone who is experiencing significant cognitive decline.

Outside Sources of Help for Taking the Keys

If your loved one refuses to cease driving and maintains that they are still safe behind the wheel, you may need some backup. Seniors rarely agree with their family members’ concerns and advice, so having someone else discuss driving with them and/or claim responsibility for taking away this privilege might be the best way resolve the issue. Consider the following resources when navigating this delicate subject:

  • Your Loved One’s Physician
    Compared to a family member’s advice, older individuals usually hold their physicians’ opinions in higher regard when it comes to difficult topics like driving. If your loved one respects and heeds a particular health care provider, it may be beneficial to have this person address driving and safety during their next appointment. Their doctor may be able to provide additional information regarding their physical and mental fitness and assess whether they pose a risk to themselves and others by getting behind the wheel. Furthermore, the physician may agree to write a medical status report, which you can present to your state Department of Motor Vehicles (more about this below). Doctors are not typically required to report unsafe drivers, but this varies by state.
  • Your Loved One’s Optometrist/Ophthalmologist
    Of course, decent eyesight is vital for safe driving. If your loved one’s poor vision is a factor in why you believe they should give up the keys, then a similar appointment with their eye doctor may help provide solid evidence as to why it is unsafe for them to continue driving. The doctor should be able to provide your loved one with a report of their visual capabilities that may also be taken to the DMV.
  • The Family Attorney
    For some elders, the family attorney holds power and credibility that is comparable to that of their doctor. If going to medical appointments doesn’t open their eyes to the fact that they should no longer be driving, then try to put it in a monetary and/or legal perspective for them. Make an appointment to consult with their attorney to discuss the risks of continuing to drive. What could happen to their estate in the event of a serious accident? Would younger family members be affected if the estate was sued successfully by a victim or the victim’s family? The attorney may also agree to meet with your family to present reasons for giving up the car keys as an important step. Seniors tend to be risk averse when it comes to their finances, so this may be a good approach if your loved one is thrifty or interested in leaving a legacy.
  • The State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
    If working with professionals your loved one respects is unsuccessful, it may be time to approach the DMV directly. Caregivers with sufficient reason can refer an unsafe driver and the DMV will investigate their abilities. They may request that the driver undergo a visual examination, written driving test or even a road test with an inspector. Any action or decision regarding the status of their license is determined by these inspectors.
    Know that there are no national standards or mandates for licensing drivers or revoking these privileges. Every state has its own program and guidelines. Keep in mind that some states maintain the anonymity of the person who made the request for evaluation, while others can share this information with the driver in question if he or she asks for it.
  • Just Take the Keys
    Confiscating a loved one’s car and/or keys can obviously cause conflict. In fact, there are documented cases where a caregiver has removed an elder’s car and then been investigated by police when the elder filed a stolen vehicle report.
    Even though you may have a solid reason for preventing them from driving, unless you have the proper documentation, such as financial POA, hiding or selling a loved one’s car without their permission can fall into a legal gray area. The best solution is to offer to “hold” your loved one’s keys for safe keeping, especially if their license has been officially taken away. If they still try to drive in spite of this, your last resort should be to call the police to intercept them, but be aware that this can come with serious consequences.
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36 Comments

My father, since he was a young man, has always been very accident prone. He acts like he is in his own world. If there a a pothole he steps in it, if there is a sheet of ice he slips on it etc. He is not aware of his surroundings and hence has had many accidents, one of which almost got him killed. He was riding his bike, probably drifted off into his own world and did not see a car the blew a stop sign. He was hit head on, flew over the car, and luckily he just suffered a concussion. He is very depressed, has very poor judgement, and solves problems in a way that is different than most. I think he has a mental illness that was never diagnosed. Maybe attention deficit disorder, or a form of Scizophrenia. He does things in a very strange way. Ever since I was a child he has been falling off of ladders, tripping on curbs, losing his money. One problem after another. So his problems are NOT related to old age. He is just simply "out of it" and walks around in a fog. He has gotten many tickets for blowing stop signs and speeding. When I asked him what happened he always says, " I didn't see the sign". He has said this dozens of time. He never sees the sign or anything else and may hit a kid on a bike or a pedestrian. I am fed up with this. I called the DMV. They told me to file a report saying that he should not be driving because he has poor attention, does not see well, has very poor judgement/common sense and this has been going on his WHOLE LIFE. I went to the DMV with him and they made him take a road test. He flunked badly. Blew a stop sign, went 45mph down a residential street(he has no sense of speed), and also made a wide turn(he has had many sideswipe accidents). They suspended his license for 30 days. He has to retake the exam, go to driving school for 5 hours(which ofcourse costs money), and retake the road test. He says he failed the road test because "the weather was bad". It was an overcast day, but he would have failed on a sunny day or any day. No the problem is, is that his functioning is impaired. He is mentally ill... I don't feel mentally ill people should be behind the wheel. He has almost gotten himself killed from all of his falls just walking around. I am afraid he might hit someone while driving. He is of course very pissed at me. But he has an impairment and I wanted to give him a wake up call. He is still driving with his license suspended. When he had a license he never took it with him anyway. He could get locked up for this. My feeling at this point is.... if that happens too bad. He is extremely accident prone in and outside of a car and create problems all the time. Every time he has an accident it is $500 for the deductible, the money he blows on tickets, the money he blow on gas. If he does not drive it will save thousands of dollars over the next few years. I hope he does NOT get his license back. He still drives locally to get food. If he gets pulled over, he may get locked up or get ticketed for unlicensed operation. He is a sick man and needs something to help him snap out of his world. Maybe medication or something. But he needs to be neurologically tested. He also has very poor memory, always has since he was young. He comes across a a nice guy, but he is really the biggest smuck on the planet. He never can say no. Let's the world take advantage of him. He is also a passive aggressive. Deep down he is very angry, but was raised not to express it. So he does strange things to sabatage you. He also loses him money on a regular basis. He pulls out a twenty to pay for something, 40 dollar will fall the floor and he will walk away. He doesn't count his money, and routinely loses things. I think he is going to end up in jail if he continues to drive or hitting someone. He has always had these mental health problems but now on top of that he does not see well. He sees nothing wrong with his driving. He says, "things happen". Not like to him. I have also threatened to call the police if he continues to take the car out without a license. I know this is cold blooded and ruthless, but I am sending a message. I hoped for many years he would change, get better etc. No he will always be a smuck and half out of it. And will always cause problems. He's a dagwood bumstead. The bumbling flumbler. I saw him on the line at the DMV. He has a scar in the front of his head from one fall, a scar on the back from another, and he drops his paperwork. The guy is a mess! And should never drive again. I have threatened with bodily harm if he ever goes near my car. As he has taken my car out, knowing he shouldn't, and the car comes back with bumper damage and a blow clutch. For a impaired guy he does like to get around. But he causes a lot of problems when he gets around. I think I am going to have to call the police on him, and perhaps have him put away. This will solve a lot of problems. The guy is a weak, meak sick man. He has no business behind the wheel or even walking down the street. He might trip on a soda can.
Mapletree,
Do you have power of attorney? I did and I used it as a wedge to get the keys. I told my dad that because I had poa, I could be sued as well if he had an accident. Also, that they could take his house away and that mom would have no money for me to take care of her. I got the keys and sold the car!
My father-in-law has some cognitive decline and vision changes that we knew were making it dangerous for him to drive. He insisted on driving anyway. We decided to rely on outside experts. We told him about a company who charges about $300 for in-depth testing of a senior's driving capabilities. We got him to agree that the test results would be the final word on his driving. Prior to spending the $ on the full test, we took him to an occupational therapist who did some preliminary testing at a much lower cost. With the kind of physical testing the therapist used, she was able to demonstrate to my father-in-law exactly why he shouldn't be driving. When he saw how poorly he did on tests such as reaction time and peripheral vision and she explained consequence scenarios to him that could result from those specific deficiencies, he willingly gave up his keys. We arranged for multiple transportation options for him and he hasn't looked back.