Tips for Taking Car Keys Away from Elderly Parents

Know when and how to have the talk

Senior man driving car
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Elders and driving—it's a touchy subject. You may be driving with Mom or Dad and notice something is off. Maybe Mom has bumped into a few trash cans on the street and amusingly told you about them, or Dad got lost in his own neighborhood. All of these are warning signs, and like all things senior related, acting earlier to talk about the issue will both make your elder loved one safer and also make it easier for the eventual time when perhaps they need to stop driving.

Let's take a look at how to have the talk with Mom or Dad about driving and knowing when it might be time to take away the car keys. 

4 Fast Facts About Senior Driving 

Triple AAA notes these facts about senior driving on their website:

  • Fifty percent of the middle-aged population and 80 percent of people in their 70s suffer from arthritis, which makes turning, flexing, and twisting painful.
  • More than 75 percent of drivers age 65 or older report using one or more medications, but less than one-third acknowledged awareness of the potential impact of the medications on driving performance.
  • Fatal crash rates increase beginning at age 75 and rise sharply after age 80. This is due to increased risk of injury and medical complications, rather than an increased tendency to get into crashes. In other words, the existing health of seniors make them more predisposed to be more badly injured in an accident.
  • By the year 2030, 70 million Americans in the U.S. will be over age 65, and 85 to 90 percent of them will be licensed to drive.

An Emotionally Charged Issue

What if I told you that tomorrow, just for a day, you would all of a sudden not have a car available? What if I said a week? You can start to see how your independence and mood would be affected.

A car represents different things to people. For some, it's a way to get to places. For others, it's about status and identity, freedom and spontaneity. After almost a lifetime of driving, it's easy to imagine how difficult it would be for your parents to let go of their car keys. Figuring out what driving means to them can help you figure out how to approach the situation. 

Spotting Driving Trouble

How can you tell when your elderly loved one is starting to have driving problems?

If you are geographically close by, the best thing is to observe directly. Distinguish between serious and less serious signs of trouble. For example, confusing the gas with the brake is serious. Riding the brake may be less so. If serious, take immediate action. If less so, observe over time, take notes, and look for a consistent pattern. These facts will help when having a conversation.

Things to look for include:

  • struggling to change lanes
  • problems turning, particularly left turns
  • driving too slow or too fast
  • reaction time
  • other drivers honking
  • hitting curbs
  • following signals
  • scrapes on cars

Often, older adults will start self-correcting, avoiding driving at night, in bad weather, and on freeways. My mom, for example, started going places by making all right-hand turns. Praise these behaviors, but also take them as a sign that things might be changing.

You may also find it helpful to check in with their friends, as they may know more than you do. Also check with their physician or pharmacist, as medication changes can impact driving.

Age Limits and Retaking a Driving Test

People often ask if there is certain age recommended for giving up your license. 

The process of aging is different for everyone, so it is hard to regulate this. Every state has their own rules.

Seniors are often over-represented in fatality statistics. They are, after all, more likely to be injured in an accident and more likely to die of that injury. As noted above in the AAA information, that is because seniors simply are often less healthy and they are more fragile than younger drivers.

In my home state of North Carolina, drivers who are 70 years of age or older at the time their current driver license expires are generally required to renew their license in person at a local DMV office. 

A Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) reevaluation may be done based on the driver's physical or mental condition or driving record. A DMV reexamination may be recommended by a family member, EMT, or police officer. Information in your parents' driving record may prompt a reexamination.

The reexamination involves the immediate evaluation of an individual by a DMV authorized officer. It consists of an interview and may also involve a vision test, a written test, and/or a driving test.

How Do You Start the Conversation?

Ideally, you start a conversation over time and not in a crisis situation.

You should initiate casual conversations. Look for an opening in something they say as well. For example, imagine that you are watching the news and they are reporting on an accident. Or perhaps the weather is turning bad. You could say to Mom or Dad something about the dangers of that particular interstate and how if it were you, you would consider alternate routes. Or in regards to the weather, remark that it really isn't the best idea to drive in any type of inclement weather.

Don’t have the entire family gang up on Mom or Dad. Designate one "bad" cop! Studies have shown that this kind of conversation is best initiated by a spouse then by adult children or a physician.

Also, have empathy. Validate their emotions and go back to why a car is important for them. For example, if it is to get places, then have a plan in place for alternative transportation. If it is about status and identity, have the car parked at their house and let others use it to drive them. If it is about freedom and spontaneity, plan spur of the moment trips.

Provide the facts about what you have observed.

If you need more information, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has a great resource, Talking with Older Drivers. It provides a free online seminar called "We Need to Talk," that will help you determine how to assess your loved ones’ driving skills and provide tools to help you have this important conversation.

Ways to Make the Transition Easier

  • Have a plan. In your conversation and planning first seek to see if there is a way to keep the person behind the wheel.
  • Make modifications. Perhaps they can stop driving at night, avoid freeways and bad weather, or stick to places where they can drive easily and safely. 
  • Drive your parents. As a caregiver, you should be especially aware of the burden this can place on yourself as a designated driver, but also the opportunity it provides to spend more time with your loved one. You shouldn’t be the sole driver.
  • Research alternatives transportation options. As transport options like Uber gain in popularity and seniors become more accustomed to using technology, it will become easier for them to adopt these new transport options. But just like aging in place, your loved one will be resistant to change, whether it's moving into a community or giving up their driving. The sooner you can have these conversations in a casual way, the easier it will be to transition. 

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