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 in Seniors

Age alone is not a reason to take away a person’s ability to drive. However, seniors are at risk for numerous health conditions that impact driving 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 Discuss that a Senior Needs to Stop 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 a Parent's 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:

  • 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 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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? 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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