Taking Away the Car Keys: Suggestions for Caregivers

By Rich O'Boyle, Editor
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It is a painful decision for a caregiver to take away the care keys from their aged parent or relative. Remember when they were teaching you how to drive and restricting your use of the car? This is one of those times when roles are reversed and the issues are painful and complex.

How can you prevent a terrible car accident – injury to you or a loved one, an innocent pedestrian or serious property damage? As people age, their senses may become dulled and their reflexes slowed. And behind the wheel of an automobile, those become liabilities. Some medications that seniors may be on may also impair their ability to safely drive.

Not all senior citizens are dangerous drivers, but they do tend to be slower drivers. When other cars are speeding past or going just above the speed limit, that can lead to unfortunate clashes and frustration. Not to mention serious bodily harm.

The signs of impaired driving ability may be hidden – you may not be in the car with them all the time to see it. But the problems are there – shifting between lanes, drowsiness, poor vision (especially at night), ignored signs and signals, unexplained dents and dings, traffic tickets.

If you suspect that your elder is having difficulty concentrating while driving, you have some responsibility to act. But be careful to balance your concerns with your elder’s sense of independence and maturity.

Some suggestions:

  • Have your elder enroll in a safe driving course – Some adult education programs offer them and AARP offers them in most metropolitan areas. You can get valuable tips and perhaps lower insurance rates. An impartial, authoritative instructor may be able to influence your elder if you can’t.
  • Arrange to have both a general physical and an eye exam – Talk to the doctor beforehand about your concerns; and then raise the same concerns during the exam. Ask for the input of the physician while your elder is present. An ophthalmologist can determine whether your elder meets the visual standards for his/her state. If correction is not possible, it may be best to turn in the driver’s license. Docotrs may now confidentially alert state motor vehicle authorities if they suspect a person is too impaired to drive.
  • Respect you elder’s right to drive – Your elder has a right to drive, but that is contingent on competency. If he/she is clearly not capable of driving safely, convey your concerns that a failure to act responsibly can lead to negative results. These could include injury to his/herself, innocent bystanders or property leading to charges of involuntary manslaughter.
  • Limit time and stress behind the wheel -- Try to limit your elder’s driving to weekends when there may be less traffic, or to areas and roads where the pace is slower or there are fewer pedestrians. Do not let him/her drive alone when possible. Suggest that you drive more often and that he/she come along for the ride.
  • Help him/her remain independent -- The car may be the only way that he/she can get out of the house and retain a sense of independence. Homebound seniors are more depressed, lonelier and may decline in health more rapidly. Balance your need to time for yourself and your family with your ability to drive your elder whenever he/she needs to. Look into public transportation and senior center shuttles.
  • Appeal to your elder's pocketbook -- Break down the cost of owning and maintaining a car and compare that cost with taxi service, senior citizen buses and local transportation.
  • Report him/her to authorities – This is an unpopular and extreme course of action. You may feel compelled to notify your state Department of Motor Vehicles that your elder is an unsafe driver. You might bring this up if your state has regular testing and renewal requirements.


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