Making the Decision to Take Away Elder Parent’s Keys

Taking the keys away from an older parent or family member is difficult and life-changing for the individual. See firsthand their driving skills before deciding to take away the keys.

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Making the Decision to Take Away Elder Parent’s Keys
9 Min Read December 11th, 2017 Updated:October 29th, 2021

Most of us value our independence. Remember that day after getting your driver's license when you were allowed to take the car yourself for the first time? Since that day, you have been independent. 

When we get older, our driving skills may diminish. You may see this firsthand now with one of your parents. Should they still be allowed on the road?

The decision about their ability to drive may become your responsibility. At some point, you may be in a position to decide to take-away your elder parent's driving privileges. The decision to take away the car keys will not be easy, as you may be responsible for taking away a large part of their independence, something they have done all their life.

AAA says that as a group, seniors are safe drivers compared to other age groups because they are risk avoidant. They tend to wear their seat belts, not use excessive speed and don't drink and drive. However, AAA says they are more likely to be injured or killed in traffic crashes due to age-related vulnerabilities, such as more fragile bones. 

Medical Conditions or Medications Can Impact Driving Skills

Our reflexes get slower with age. Reaction time to driving events quickly becomes reduced, placing them and other drivers at risk as these reactions become more diminished. 

Many older people also suffer from a shorter attention span, and the shorter attention span limits the ability to do two things at once, which is essential when driving.  

With age comes additional changes in health, body, and mind. Many of these changes will impact a person's ability to drive. Even simple things like stiff joints or weaker muscles reduce the ability to move quickly, which is vital in an emergency driving situation. 

The loss of feeling or tingling in your feet and fingers can make it harder to use the foot pedals or steer. Other, more serious health issues may make it completely unsafe for a person to drive.

Medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses also make it more difficult for older drivers to recover from any injuries they may have in an accident. Except for teen drivers, seniors have the highest crash death rate per mile driven, even though they drive fewer miles than younger people.

Seniors are outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of 7 to 10 years. Most older drivers recognize and avoid situations where their limitations put them at risk. Older drivers tend to drive less after dark, during rush hour, or in bad weather and avoid difficult roads such as highways and intersections.

Aging and Driving Don't Always Go Well Together

Emily Yoffe writes on Slate, "When old people are involved in fatal crashes, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports, their victims are most likely to be themselves and their equally elderly, frail passengers. Intersections are particularly perilous. According to a study in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention, intersection crashes accounted for about one-half of the fatalities in accidents among drivers 85 and older." 

The study found that when drivers 70 to 79 were involved in intersection collisions, they had misjudged whether it was safe to proceed. Those aged 80 and over simply failed to see the other car.

Age should not be the only reason an older person should no longer drive. However, as we age, we should pay attention and recognize when their health and driving skills get to the point that they should no longer be allowed behind a vehicle's wheel. Physical health issues and cognitive issues (Alzheimer's and other dementias) will pose a risk for the older driver and others on the road.

Sometimes, it can be hard for an older person to realize that they are no longer a safe driver. It would be best if you observed their driving firsthand before discussing their driving with them.

Observing an Elder Driver

The National Institute on Aging (NIH) says there are things you should be looking for when reviewing if their driving is an issue:

  • Multiple-vehicle crashes, "near misses," and/or new dents in the car
  • Two or more traffic tickets or warnings within the last two years; increases in car insurance premiums because of driving issues
  • Comments from neighbors or friends about driving
  • Anxiety about driving at night
  • Health issues that might affect driving ability, including problems with vision, hearing, and/or movement, including early memory loss
  • Complaints about the speed, sudden lane changes, or actions of other drivers
  • Recommendations from a doctor to modify driving habits or quit driving entirely

If you have any questions about their ability to drive, be sure to do a "ride-along" and observe their physical ability in controlling the vehicle. 

Your observation should include how they "stay within the lines." Do they weave or take up two lanes at the same time? Do they look left and right when they decide to change lanes? Do they use their blinkers? Do they seem confused in traffic or too cautious where they become a danger on the road?  

Look for excessive excuses for their driving actions. See if they avoid close parking places for those farther away but where no other vehicles are located. These all are signs that their time on the road should be coming to an end.

You might want to go to their next doctor's office visit and bring up the issue of driving. They might lie to you, but they may be less likely to lie to the doctor.

Medications and the Ability to Drive

Remember, medications they may be taking could be a reason for their driving problems. A change in medication could be the answer to better driving. Clear communication with the doctor is critical in determining if the driving problem is part of the aging process or just a result of a medication that might be interacting with another drug or directly causing an issue that impacts their ability to drive.

Do not hesitate if you feel your parent is no longer able to be a safe driver. Hopefully, they willfully agree when you have the discussion. However, if they are not willing to give up the keys, you should still move forward for the safety of both your older parent and the public.

Suggestions to Consider 

Intervention.

This can be confrontational, but a group of family members and friends can be a powerful message to your parent. Getting a healthcare professional and even a clergy member involved can be helpful if you take this approach. The intervention needs to be handled firmly, but remember to be compassionate. The decision will impact their life and their independence. The inability to drive will change their lives, and they will become dependent on others. However, their level of denial might be very high. 

DMV  

You can contact your state's Department of Motor Vehicles and report your concerns. Depending upon state regulations and your senior's disabilities, it may be illegal for them to continue to drive. The DMV may do nothing more than sending a letter, but this might help convince your parent to stop. A report to the DMV could trigger a review of your parent's driving record or an order to retest the driver. Click here for a state-by-state look at driving rules for seniors.

Take Away the Keys

For some, this is the most extreme, but maybe the only way to ensure your elder parent is safe. When you take the keys away, disable the vehicle, or move the vehicle to another location, you prevent access. They will not be happy; however, over time, they may feel better that the decision was made for them, and it was for the best.

You Take the Keys Away … Now What?

When you take away their ability to get around, this can force you and other family members to be more involved. That won't always be easy since you have your own careers, family responsibilities, and time concerns that will get in the way.

Some areas provide free or low-cost bus or taxi services for older people. Some communities offer a carpool service or scheduled trips to the grocery store, mall, or doctor's office. Religious and civic groups sometimes have volunteers who will drive your parent where they may need to go.

Your local Area Agency on Aging can help you find services in your area. Call 1-800-677-1116, or click here to find your nearest Area Agency on Aging.

More and more people are using services like Uber and Lyft. Both Uber and its competitor Lyft have taken steps to make their apps more accessible to seniors. Plus, you may be able to arrange for the service through your smartphone. As you know, more seniors now have smartphones, so this can be a convenient way for them to enjoy independence.

Resources

AARP offers the highly recommended Driver Safety Program for older people. To find a class near you, visit AARP's Driver Safety page online, call toll-free at 1-888-227-7669.

If concern for your parent's driving ability has not yet become a concern, it probably will. Things can change quickly, so if they seem to be driving well now\ it doesn't mean next month will be the same, and it requires you to be fully aware of their situation.

Being Realistic About Aging

It is often difficult for many people to come to the realization that their parent is getting older and declining. Aging happens, and the consequences can be devastating if we ignore it. 

As we see our parents decline, we better start looking at a mirror. What have you done to prepare for the costs and burdens of changing health and aging?

Retirement planning is vital, and part of those plans should be Long-Term Care Insurance. Many of us will become dependent on others and need assistance with daily activities or supervision due to memory loss. 

Caregiving is demanding on your family, and professional care is expensive. What to do?

Affordable Long-Term Care Insurance will not become your driver, but it will provide you access to your choice of quality care options, including in-home care. You will protect savings and ease the stress and anxiety otherwise placed on those you love.

The best time to plan is when you are younger, ideally in your 40s or 50s. Seek help from a qualified Long-Term Care Insurance specialist to help you navigate the many companies and their options.

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About the Author

Linda is a former journalist who now enjoys writing about topics she is interested in so she “can keep her mind active and engaged”.

LTC News Contributor Linda Maxwell

Linda Maxwell

Contributor since December 11th, 2017

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Aging issues will happen to all of us. Your body and health have changed in the last twenty years; just think about the changes in your health, body, and mind you will experience in the decades ahead.  

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