At some point, many family caregivers begin to fear that their aging loved ones are no longer safe behind the wheel. Hesitation to act on this worry is normal, but ignoring the warning signs that a senior is unfit to drive can be a recipe for disaster.
Health Conditions That Can Affect a Senior’s Ability to Drive
Age alone is not a reason to take away a person’s driving privileges. However, seniors are at risk for numerous health conditions that impact driving. For example, age-related changes 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 doesn’t want to stop driving or is in denial of the fact that their driving has become questionable or downright 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. Their mind is broken, causing them to seriously overestimate their driving abilities.
How to Convince a Senior to Stop Driving
For older adults, 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 transportation options. 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 medications, impaired vision, increased accidents or traffic citations, and any other limiting physical or mental health conditions they may have.
The second part of this discussion should focus on viable alternatives to driving, such as rides from family and friends, public transportation, ridesharing 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 and anosognosia. A senior with dementia who is no longer fit to drive will need an outsider to intervene and take control of the situation if they continue to get behind the wheel.
Where to Get Help with Taking the Keys Away from an Elderly Driver
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:
- An Aging 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 listens to 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). Mandatory reporting requirements for unsafe driving vary by state. Doctors often find themselves in a gray area when it comes to doing no harm to a patient, maintaining confidentiality and following their state’s reporting rules.
- An Aging 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 their car 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 vision examination that may also be taken to the DMV.
- An Elder Law 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? Who would be liable in the event they seriously injured or even killed another person while driving? 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 report an unsafe driver and the DMV will investigate their driving record and abilities. They may require the driver to undergo a visual examination, take a written driving test or even take 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. Again, if a senior is not competent, it may not matter to them if their license is revoked (or they may forget that it has been revoked) and they might continue driving.
You can find state-specific information about reporting an unsafe driver using the American Automobile Association (AAA) Senior Driving website or on your state’s DMV website.
- Just Take the Keys Away
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.
Sources: Older Drivers (https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/older-drivers); Self-awareness of cognitive and driving ability in patients with Mild Cognitive Impairment, Alzheimer’s disease and healthy elderly (https://www.frontiersin.org/10.3389/conf.fnhum.2016.220.00114/event_abstract); Physician’s Guide to Assessing and Counseling Older Drivers (https://one.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/olddrive/olderdriversbook/pages/Contents.html)